JPL open house, felled by sequestration, costs about $400,000

Bracing for “significant impacts” to funding for public outreach programs next year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory decided to cancel its hugely popular open house in June. The cost savings? Roughly $400,000 for the two-day event.

The figure is a comparatively slim sum for an agency that deals with budgets into the billions, but comes as NASA faces pressure to cut costs where it can amid the across-the-board federal spending reductions known as sequestration.

It was that downward pressure that JPL cited when it announced last week that the open house scheduled for June 8 and 9 would be canceled to save money. At the time, the cost to put on the event was not available.

But on Monday, JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor said the budget to put on the open house -- which attracts close to 40,000 people each year -- is roughly $400,000, including for security, portable toilets, presentations and other items brought to the La Cañada Flintridge campus.

It also covers pay for hourly employees who educate the public on the space agency’s missions.

About two-thirds of the scientists and engineers who work during open house are hourly employees, McGregor said.

Salaried employees volunteer their time, she added.

Between 700 and 1,000 employees work the event, said McGregor, and typically because they enjoy it.

“No one is told they have to work,” she said.

All NASA centers are currently reviewing public outreach efforts to deal with the budget pressures of sequestration. And once the “budget dust settles” later this year, McGregor has said JPL may still bring back the open house.

While JPL doesn’t know of any other outreach events that will be cut this year, NASA may have a tighter budget next year, which means the public may have less of a chance to interact with the facility that successfully landed the car-sized rover Curiosity on Mars last year.

“We may see some significant impacts to outreach and education next year,” McGregor said.

Some in California’s congressional delegation -- including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes the JPL campus -- have urged the Obama administration to spare the space agency from deep funding cuts, arguing it could produce painful long term effects.

Schiff also joined the chorus of people disappointed in the decision to cancel the JPL open house event, which he called a result of “extremely poor fiscal policy – sequestration.”

-- Tiffany Kelly and Jason Wells,

Follow on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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