The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: JPL

NEW ORLEANS — NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off 100 contractors last week because of potential sharp budget cuts to the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program and warned that more layoffs could come.

A JPL spokesperson confirmed Jan. 7 that the center laid off the contractors and took other measures, such as across-the-board spending cuts and pausing work on one aspect of MSR, because of the “uncertain federal budget” in fiscal year 2024. The Los Angeles Times first reported the layoffs.

NASA announced in November that it would slow down work on MSR because of sharp differences in proposed funding for the effort in separate House and Senate bills. A House appropriations bill would provide the agency’s full request of $949.3 million while the Senate version allocated only $300 million.

NASA is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) until Feb. 2 that funds the agency at 2023 levels, which for MSR is $822.3 million. Sandra Connelly, deputy associate administrator for science at NASA, said at an advisory committee meeting in November that slowing down work on MSR was needed to avoid a “worst-case scenario” of spending at 2023 levels for several months but getting only the $300 million in the Senate bill for the program.

“We got direction from NASA to plan for the lower level and we’re doing that systematically,” Laurie Leshin, director of JPL, said in an interview Jan. 8 during the 243rd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here. “So, the first thing to happen is to look at where we’re using on-site contractors on MSR, but other places as well, where JPLers could backfill for that.”

Those contractors, she explained, are used as a “surge capacity” where needed on specific programs. Those contractors were primarily working on MSR but in a few cases on other projects that she said were finishing up already.

In addition to the contractor layoffs, JPL has had a hiring freeze in place since September. “We had been growing quite a bit because we were very busy,” she said. With several missions, such as Psyche, NISAR and Europa Clipper, either having launched or nearing completion, “we needed to stem the growth a bit.”

The contractor layoffs reportedly took those affected by surprise. On Reddit, someone who said they were one of the people affected reported getting an email at the end of the day Jan. 4 informing them they had been laid off effectively immediately, and lost computer and building access within an hour. “It was shocking and lightning fast,” that person said.

Depending on the outcome of the fiscal year 2024 appropriations process, more layoffs, including of JPL employees instead of just contractors, could follow. “Should the reduced budget situation continue, we must also consider difficult decisions regarding potential staff layoffs,” JPL said in a statement.

Leshin said layoffs would be likely if MSR received funding closer to the Senate bill’s $300 million. “I wanted to be transparent with the laboratory and we have been all along, saying there’s a lot of uncertainty. We’ve come out now and said, you know, layoffs are looking more likely and there certainly will be some at some of these lower levels of funding.”

On the other hand, if Congress provides full funding for MSR, she said JPL would “absolutely” bring back contractors that had been laid off.

In November, several members of California’s congressional delegation wrote to NASA to state that they were ”mystified” by the agency’s decision to slow down work on MSR before the 2024 appropriations process was completed. They warned of impacts that included hundreds of jobs lost and delays in the launch of the missions to return the samples cached by Perseverance. Some of them also wrote to Senate appropriators asking for at least $822 million for MSR in 2024.

Leshin said other missions led by JPL are going well. Europa Clipper, a mission to study the icy, potentially habitable moon of Jupiter, remains on track for an October launch as it goes through system-level testing. NISAR, a synthetic aperture radar Earth science mission jointly developed with the Indian space agency ISRO, is also going through final tests ahead of a launch in the spring.

NASA is also continuing a reassessment of the MSR architecture that started after an independent review board concluded in September that the current approach was behind schedule and well above budget estimates. Leshin said that review remained on schedule to be completed by March.

“We’re really committed to this high-priority mission — the highest priority two decadal surveys in a row — and to a balanced program,” she said. “I believe there’s a solution out there that will allow us to do that.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...