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300 to Lose Jobs as JPL Initiates Cutbacks

The layoffs come as NASA shifts focus from robotics to manned space exploration.

October 13, 2005|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has begun laying off employees and contractors as part of an agencywide priority shift away from the robotics missions at which JPL excels.

The layoffs began last week with 50 job cuts and are expected to conclude in three weeks, according to Blaine Baggett, a spokesman for the La Canada Flintridge space laboratory.

About 100 off-lab contractors and 200 full-time employees are expected to lose their jobs, Baggett said. That is about 5% of the workforce of 5,700.

"The budget that we are anticipating for 2006 makes it a necessity for us to initiate layoffs," said Charles Elachi, JPL's director. "We are trying to be as sensitive and fair as we can be."

Most of the layoffs are coming from the technical and engineering offices of the agency, Baggett said. Cuts are also hitting departments across the board, including the public outreach bureaus.

The 2006 NASA budget submitted by NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin puts more emphasis on carrying out President Bush's vision for space. That includes putting astronauts back on the moon by the end of the next decade. A moon base would then become a waypoint for an eventual manned mission to Mars.

JPL's missions, while publicly popular, have emphasized the use of robots and spacecraft sensors to explore other planets and moons. The Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity are still sampling rocks and dirt more than a year after landing. Early this year, the Cassini mission to Saturn's moon Titan provided some of the most spectacular images ever seen of an alien world.

Millions of people around the world watched as the Deep Impact mission sent a probe into a comet, answering fundamental questions about the composition of these bright stellar wanderers.

Even with these successes, it has been evident for months that JPL was likely to be hit with budget cuts. NASA canceled two JPL projects, the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter and the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, earlier this year. The Mars orbiter, which had been scheduled to be launched in 2011, was to be a giant communications satellite that would relay information to Earth from a variety of landers and satellites investigating the Red Planet.

The Jupiter moons mission planned for 2009 was to be a part of the broader Prometheus project, which would use nuclear power to explore other worlds.

JPL isn't the only space center being hit by budget cuts. The Ames Research Center near Mountain View, Calif., is also facing cutbacks, along with centers in the East. Griffin recently announced that NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., could lose as much as a third of its staff. That results partly from Griffin's philosophy of decentralizing authority over space programs.

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