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JPL official says mass layoff is unlikely despite budget cut

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge has its budget cut by $50 million, but a JPL official says a large reduction like the spring's 247-employee layoff is unlikely.

December 12, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, Los Angeles Times
  • Curiosity, the Mars rover launched to the Red Planet last month, is one the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's four major space missions in 2011. Above, Curiosity, fully assembled in a clean room at JPL's La Cañada Flintridge campus.
Curiosity, the Mars rover launched to the Red Planet last month, is one the… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Despite a $50-million budget cut, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge probably won't face another round of mass layoffs, a legislative affairs official for the agency said.

Federal spending reductions have put support for space exploration and other science programs in jeopardy, but JPL's budget will remain relatively stable at $1.5 billion for the coming year. The laboratory will probably be able to avoid "another large change in workforce," said Richard O'Toole, manager of legislative affairs.

Drops in funding prompted layoffs of 247 JPL employees in February and March, many of them in administrative support positions. Nearly 60 other workers retired earlier this year and have not been replaced, reducing the number of lab employees to 5,153, said spokeswoman Veronica McGregor.

Given the budget wrangling in Congress, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), long a proponent of JPL, said the modest funding reduction was the best his colleagues could do.

"JPL is feeling the pain, but other agencies have been hit a lot harder," said Schiff, who last month helped broker a bipartisan deal to reconcile proposed science budgets in the Senate and House of Representatives.

NASA's 2012 budget is $17.8 billion, about $680 million less than last year. A bill passed earlier by the Republican-controlled House would have cut NASA funding to $16.8 billion.

The loss of $50 million for JPL is offset by its spring workforce reductions and cyclical drops in manpower needs, officials said.

"We don't operate on a steady rate for any of these programs," O'Toole said.

JPL launched four major space missions in 2011, most recently the Nov. 26 send-off of the new Mars rover, Curiosity, which is expected to land in August.

JPL's only major project launch in 2012 is NuSTAR, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, which will orbit Earth and study the X-ray emissions of black holes and other phenomena throughout the cosmos. The launch is set for Feb. 3.

"Things have stabilized for this year," O'Toole said. "We're concerned about what happens in 2013 and beyond."

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