In a memo to employees earlier this month, JPL officials said that offering such benefits is consistent with the university and the space lab's policies of non-discrimination.
"It's certainly seen as a positive thing here on campus; we did it because we were being responsive to people here at Caltech and JPL," said Max Benavidez, a Caltech spokesman.
Caltech employs 2,700 people and Benavidez said he has no idea how many of those would be affected by the new policy. The same is true for JPL, which has about 5,800 employees and is one of the largest employers in the Pasadena area.
Officials said they have been studying the idea for almost two years and have looked at data that suggest less than 1% of the total work force enrolls in such benefits packages, thus the overall cost of the program will be extremely low.
Several other major universities, such as Harvard and MIT, already offer domestic partner benefits, but the move puts Caltech and JPL ahead of local cities, such as Pasadena.
The decision, which has been downplayed by Caltech and JPL, has already raised controversy, drawing applause from gay and lesbian coalitions and opposition from local conservatives who say it sanctions homosexual lifestyles.
But Duane Petersen, manager of human resources for JPL, said the sexual orientation of the lab's employees is a "non-issue."
"Basically we're looking at it as a benefits improvement," Petersen said. "We tend not to get into lifestyles of our employees; we try to make it a non-issue."