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

Updated 7:15 p.m. Eastern with comment from Rep. Chu.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced Feb. 6 it will lay off 530 employees, about 8% of its staff, citing uncertainty about its budget for 2024.

In a statement, JPL said it would lay off about 530 employees, as well as 40 contractors, after exhausting other efforts to reduce costs given potential spending reductions for NASA and specifically for Mars Sample Return (MSR), a major program for the Pasadena, California-based center.

“After exhausting all other measures to adjust to a lower budget from NASA, and in the absence of a [fiscal year 2024] appropriation from Congress, we have had to make the difficult decision to reduce the JPL workforce through layoffs,” JPL stated.

The layoffs come a month after JPL laid off 100 contractors, many of whom had been working on MSR. Those layoffs were in response to a NASA decision in November to reduce spending on MSR while the agency operates on a continuing resolution (CR) that funds programs at 2023 levels. Agency officials said in November that sharp differences in funding for MSR between House and Senate spending bills for 2024 — $949.3 million in the House versus $300 million in the Senate — forced them to reduce spending should Congress enact the lower spending level.

Laurie Leshin, director of JPL, said in a Jan. 8 interview that she had warned employees that staff layoffs were a possibility. “I wanted to be transparent with the laboratory and we have been all along, saying there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “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.”

In a memo to JPL staff Feb. 6, Leshin said that a lack of a final 2024 appropriations bill — NASA is operating on a CR that runs until March 8 — forced the layoffs after taking other measures such as a hiring freeze and reductions in MSR contracts and other spending, as well as the earlier contractor layoffs.

“So in the absence of an appropriation, and as much as we wish we didn’t need to take this action, we must now move forward to protect against even deeper cuts later were we to wait,” she wrote.

Leshin said in the memo that affected employees will be notified Feb. 7 after staff meetings. Most employees will work from home, she said, “so everyone can be in a safe, comfortable environment on a stressful day.”

NASA’s decision to reduce spending on MSR in the absence of a final 2024 spending bill has been strongly opposed by members of California’s congressional delegation. In November, six members of Congress from the state wrote to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, warning of job losses and delays in MSR if NASA did not restore funding to the program while awaiting the final bill.

On Feb. 1, 44 members of Congress, representing most of California’s congressional delegation, wrote to Shalanda Young, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, making the same request regarding MSR funding. “This short-sighted and misguided decision will cost hundreds of jobs and a decade of lost science, and it flies in the face of Congressional authority,” they wrote.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), whose district includes JPL and helped lead the recent letter to the White House, said she was “extremely disappointed” in the layoffs. “These cuts will devastate workers and Southern California in the short-term, and they hurt the long-term viability of not just our Mars Exploration Program but also many years of scientific discovery to come,” she said in a statement, adding she hoped to work out a final spending bill that would restore MSR funding and allow JPL to rehire workers.

In a Feb. 6 statement, Nelson defended the decision to cut spending on MSR, citing the wide differences between the House and Senate bills as well as an ongoing NASA review of the MSR architecture prompted by an independent review last year.

“This decision is necessary because the FY 2024 appropriation, which already started on Oct. 1, 2023, has not been passed by Congress and the lowest level of funding approved has been reported by the Senate appropriations committee,” he said. “To spend more than that amount, with no final legislation in place, would be unwise and spending money NASA does not have.”

“JPL has long been — and will continue to be — a shining example of America’s leadership in space,” he said, but added that “these painful decisions are hard, and we will feel this loss across the NASA family.”

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...