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JPL faces extensive layoffs

About 250 jobs in La Cañada could fall victim to federal belt-tightening.

February 24, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars rover team members, from left, Collette Lohr and Kim Lichtenberg watch carefully as Spirit prototype rover gets stuck in the simulated Martian soil.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars rover team members, from… (Mary O'Keefe )

La Cañada Flintridge braced for the fallout of what could be 250 layoffs at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, brought on by tighter federal spending.

[This corrects an earlier version of this story. Scroll down for details]

Layoff notices started going out two weeks ago and will continue through the end of March, said Richard O'Toole, JPL’s legislative affairs manager. The layoffs could leave as many as 200 scientists or engineers and dozens of other workers out of a job.

The workers most likely to be affected are those associated with scientific projects that have been delayed due to budget concerns, and those who are part of missions nearing their end and no longer need staffing levels as large as previous years, O’Toole said.

With about 5,200 employees, JPL is La Cañada Flintridge’s largest employer.

“Undoubtedly this will negatively impact some of our residents,” said Mayor Donald Voss. “And while JPL doesn’t generate sales taxes, it does have an impact on the number of people eating lunch and shopping in La Cañada.”

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Congress has yet to approve a 2011 budget for NASA, and President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal calls for no more than holding fast to NASA’s 2010 allotment of $18.74 billion.

“We’re ratcheting down to a slightly lower budget level than we anticipated for this year. The cuts put us in line with what we think next year’s budget is going to support,” said O'Toole, JPL’s legislative affairs manager.

The earth sciences may be especially hard-hit, including the delayed Destiny Project, which was to study earthquakes, volcanoes and other dynamics involving the Earth’s crust.

“There are resources we were counting on this year that will not come now,” O’Toole said.

NASA is also busy trying to adjust its priorities for planetary science missions based on an upcoming report by the National Academy of Sciences, he added.

“Going forward, NASA’s budget is flat, and there is uncertainty because a budget for this year has not been approved yet,” JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor said. “Part of [the need for layoffs] is based on uncertainty, which is what you see in general in the economy.”

In preparation for the budget shortfalls, JPL moved to lay off a few dozen workers last fall.

Despite the most recent need to juggle funds, McGregor said JPL will continue moving forward with some of its most high-profile projects, including a Jupiter mission in August, a lunar mission in September and the launch of a new Mars exploration rover in late November.

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CORRECTION: An earlier verison of this article misstated the number of layoffs. Approximately 250 jobs are expected to be eliminated, not 200. In addition, several pieces of information attributed to JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor should have been attributed to Richard O’Toole, the facility’s legislative affairs manager.

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