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JPL to Boost Workforce, Upgrade Campus

November 15, 2003|James F. Peltz | Times Staff Writer

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena plans to hire 200 to 300 people in the next year as work accelerates on several space missions, including one to study Jupiter's moons.

JPL, a NASA operation managed by Caltech, also plans a $100-million upgrade to its 177-acre campus over the next several years, spokesman Frank O'Donnell said Friday.

The expansion will mainly involve building three permanent structures to replace aging trailers and other temporary facilities, he said. "We are not increasing our footprint here by buying additional property or anything like that."

The employment boost would swell JPL's workforce by about 5%, and most of the new hires would be scientists and engineers. JPL's workforce currently totals about 5,500, which include several hundred people who work for other companies but are assigned to JPL projects.

Although JPL's employment has edged up in the last two years, it's still down sharply from the early 1990s, when it peaked at 7,500. The decline occurred as NASA picked up only modest budget increases.

President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2004, which began Oct. 1, calls for NASA's funding to rise 3% to $15.5 billion. If passed, JPL's budget for this year would be $1.6 billion.

Despite current plans to add jobs, long-term hiring at JPL is uncertain because of heightened debate in Congress over NASA spending, especially for manned spacecraft after the shuttle Columbia disaster in February, said Marco Caceres, an analyst for consulting firm Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.

If Congress remains committed to manned flight, that could mean cutbacks in expensive projects such as those being developed by JPL, he said.

"Some of these big programs are going to be fair game at some point" for spending cuts, Caceres said. "A lot can happen between now and when those satellites are completed toward the end of the decade and launched."

One key project driving JPL's hiring plans is called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. The spacecraft, expected to launch sometime in the next decade, would study some of Jupiter's 39 moons on which scientists believe there might be oceans covered by ice.

The Icy Moons Orbiter, in turn, is the first leg of a larger NASA project called Prometheus, which is expected to cost more than $3 billion over the next five years. The project is unique because its spacecraft, once they are launched by conventional means beyond Earth's atmosphere, would then use a nuclear-based electrical propulsion system.

The idea is to shorten their travel time to planets to increase the time they can spend orbiting around them.

JPL also will be busy in January. That's when its two new rovers are scheduled to reach Mars. They're expected to be much more mobile than the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover, and they carry more sophisticated instruments to measure the planet.

Launched three weeks apart, the first rover is expected to land Jan. 3, the second Jan. 24. The rovers are identical but will land in different regions of Mars.

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