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NASA cuts threaten employees, Mars exploration

Hundreds could lose their jobs if Mars programs are scaled back.

February 15, 2012|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com
  • The Mars rover Curiosity, in the clean room at JPL in La Canada Flintridge on Monday, April 4, 2011. The rover is expected to land on the Red Planet in August. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)
The Mars rover Curiosity, in the clean room at JPL in La…

Proposed cuts to next year’s NASA budget would drastically scale back the agency’s efforts to explore Mars, likely costing hundreds of Jet Propulsion Laboratory workers their jobs.

In the scope of a more than $17.7-billion proposed 2013 budget for the agency, the call for a $300-million reduction in planetary science funding appears relatively modest on paper but would hit JPL particularly hard.

The cuts eliminate two future joint U.S.-European Mars missions that would have been managed by JPL, eliminating positions for many of the scientists and engineers who built and launched NASA’s celebrated Mars rovers.

“If nothing changes in the budget, the impact on us will be a few hundred workers next fiscal year,” said JPL Legislative Affairs Manager Rich O’Toole. The agency’s fiscal year begins in October.

JPL’s Curiosity rover is expected to reach the Red Planet on Aug. 5. Touchdown will conclude the roles of many on the Curiosity team, who would have gone on to participate in the future Mars missions slashed under the new budget, said O’Toole.

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The loss of hundreds of workers would be the second massive round of layoffs at the La Cañada Flintridge laboratory in two years.

JPL suffered a direct $50-million cut in its 2012 budget, prompting preemptive layoffs of 247 JPL employees in February and March of last year, many of those in administrative support positions. Nearly five dozen JPL workers retired in 2011 and were not replaced.

Cuts to the Mars program would appear to not have much impact on other NASA priorities, including the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the Hubble, and work supporting future human space exploration.

The proposed 2013 NASA budget, announced Monday by NASA head Charles Bolden, is $60 million less than this year’s budget.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D- Pasadena) has vowed to fight the cuts, saying funding reductions should be spread out more evenly among the agency’s many scientific priorities.

“Planetary science is an area where we have always excelled as a nation, being able to do things no one else can. This is a leadership role we should not walk away from,” said Schiff. “We already have to go to the Russians to get a ride to the Space Station, and it would be a sad state if we’re superseded by the Europeans in planetary exploration. It’s a defeatist view of what America is capable of, and not one that I share.”

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