JPL's budget is cut by $50M

A $50-million budget cut for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge likely won't be enough to spur another round of mass layoffs, a legislative affairs official for the agency said.

Despite massive federal deficits that have put support for space exploration and other science programs in jeopardy, JPL's budget will remain relatively stable at $1.5 billion for the coming year.

Even with the $50-million hit, the venerable laboratory will likely 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 total number of lab employees to 5,153, according to spokeswoman Veronica McGregor.

Given the budget constraints in Congress, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), long a proponent of JPL, said the slight 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. But a bill passed earlier by the Republican-controlled House would have cut NASA funding to $16.8 billion.

Budgets for 2012 retroactively include expenses since Oct. 1, the start of NASA's fiscal year.

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

“As we launch things, those projects ramp down. 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 isn't expected to land until August.

JPL's only major project launch in 2012 is NuSTAR, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, an Earth satellite that will use X-rays to study radioactive material and conduct a census of black holes throughout the cosmos.

NuSTAR is scheduled to launch Feb. 3.

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

With the failure of the congressional “super committee” to achieve long-term deficit agreements, Schiff said he is worried that future cuts to NASA will jeopardize space exploration partnerships with the European Space Agency.

Negotiations about future Mars missions failed last month due to l budget constraints.

“The main things to keep our eye on, in addition to the budget for next year, are the projects in the pipeline,” Schiff said. “I would love to see NASA reach an agreement with the European Space Agency for missions down the road.”

Space programs, however, represent just one facet of JPL funding.

The lab's budgets for Earth science work rival those for exploration of Mars and the solar system, according to O'Toole.

NASA's budget is also compartmentalized.

Funding earmarked by Congress for space exploration and technology development took cuts, but NASA's science budget — from which JPL draws the vast majority of its operating funds — actually went up by $89 million to roughly $5 billion, O'Toole said.

Schiff said JPL was hurt less than other agencies “because the work there is so widely respected within NASA and beyond.”

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