NASA chief pledges Mars program help

With proposed federal budget cuts threatening to eliminate hundreds of jobs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden this week said he would try to keep scientists and engineers working on Mars exploration missions on the payroll.

The Obama administration’s proposed budget would hit the Mars mission control center particularly hard with $226 million in funding cuts that officials have said could lead to mass lay-offs.

Bolden, a former astronaut and Marine Corps major general, told JPL employees during a visit on Wednesday that NASA will attempt to restructure its Mars program in ways that would save jobs and preserve its brain trust.

“There are a lot of things about going to other planets that nobody knows, except here,” said Bolden.

When the rover Curiosity touches down on Mars in August, officials say many of the scientists and engineers assigned to the program will have little work to do unless things change.

JPL Director Charles Elachi said the administrative restructuring could involve bringing other NASA work funded under the 2013 budget to the La Cañada campus, although specific projects have not yet been identified.

Elachi also said that JPL will be able maintain its current workforce for at least the next nine months, until the new fiscal year begins in October.

Although planetary science takes a hit in the proposed NASA budget, the agency would invest billions in developing new technology to carry humans into space.

Agency brass is “trying to lay the groundwork, the overall concept, for a viable, affordable program of robotic exploration that supports the objectives [of canceled Mars missions]…but also meets the president’s challenge of putting humans in the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s,” Bolden said. “If all that works out, hopefully you’ll find a minimum loss of jobs here in the Jet Propulsion Lab.”

Bolden hinted that NASA could develop a new Mars Mission that would launch between 2018 and 2020, when the planet comes closest to Earth, which occurs once every 14 years.

“It’s really critical as we work with international partners, and work with academia and industry, to decide what is the type of program we’re going to have to replace [the canceled missions] — how do we best craft it so we don’t miss that window.”

On Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) met with JPL employees to hear their concerns about the impact the proposed funding cuts would have on the workforce and scientific progress.

The congressman issued a statement after Obama’s budget proposal was released, vowing to fight funding cuts to planetary exploration “tooth and nail.”

In a statement released the next day, Schiff said the meeting made him “even more determined to keep the incredible team of scientists and engineers at JPL together, and to preserve American leadership in space exploration."

-- Joe Piasecki and Bill Kisliuk, Times Community News

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