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NASA JPL lays off 530 due to budget cuts

About 8% of the highly qualified workforce, plus 40 contractors, are now available to hire

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NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), one of the most important development institutes for the US space program and (hence) a major innovator in the field of additive manufacturing, is laying off 8% of its workforce due to budget cuts. That’s about 530 people, plus 40 additional contractors. As Douglas Hofmann, Senior Research Scientist (SRS) and Principal at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, put it, “some of the best people in the world will be available to hire tomorrow.”

According to an official statement from NASA JPL, “After exhausting all other measures to adjust to a lower budget from NASA, and in the absence of an FY24 appropriation from Congress, we [NASA JPL] have had to make the difficult decision to reduce the JPL workforce through layoffs. JPL staff has been advised that the workforce reduction will affect approximately 530 of our colleagues, an impact of about 8%, plus approximately 40 additional members of our contractor workforce. The impacts will occur across both technical and support areas of the Lab. These are painful but necessary adjustments that will enable us to adhere to our budget allocation while continuing our important work for NASA and our nation.”

NASA JPL lays off 530 due to budget cuts: about 8% of the highly qualified workforce, plus 40 contractors, are now available to hire
In 2022 JPL developed a 3D printable fabric that can be stiffened into a desired shape after deployment in space.

JPL Director Laurie Leshin wrote a memo to employees saying that, “while we still do not have an FY24 appropriation or the final word from Congress on our Mars Sample Return (MSR) budget allocation, we are now in a position where we must take further significant action to reduce our spending, which will result in layoffs of JPL employees and an additional release of contractors. These cuts are among the most challenging that we have had to make even as we have sought to reduce our spending in recent months.”

Leshin goes on to explain how the situation got to this point, saying that “without an approved federal budget including final allocation for MSR FY24 funding levels, NASA previously directed JPL to plan for an MSR budget of $300M. This is consistent with the low end of congressional markups of NASA’s budget and a 63% decrease over the FY23 level. In response to this direction, and in an effort to protect our workforce, we implemented a hiring freeze, reduced MSR contracts, and implemented cuts to burden budgets across the Lab. Earlier this month, we further reduced spending by releasing some of our valued on-site contractors.

“Unfortunately, those actions alone are not enough for us to make it through the remainder of the fiscal year. So in the absence of an appropriation, and as much as we wish we didn’t need to take this action, we must now move forward to protect against even deeper cuts later were we to wait.”

A history of success

Managed by Caltech, JPL is NASA’s only federally-funded research and development center. Its workforce includes a dedicated and diverse population of scientists, engineers, technologists, developers, communicators, designers, safety experts, business administrators, and more.

The success of JPL’s first spacecraft, the Explorer I satellite, in 1958 helped lift America into the Space Age. JPL spacecraft have flown to every planet in the solar system, the Sun, and into interstellar space in a quest to better understand the origins of the universe, and of life.

It was a camera on Voyager 1 that captured the pale blue dot of Earth from 3.7 billion miles away and corrective optics engineered by JPL that brought the Hubble Space Telescope into focus. JPL helped build and manage one of the four cameras aboard the James Webb Space Telescope. The image sensors used in modern digital cameras, including your smartphone’s, were developed at JPL, too.

 

Perseverance Rover

Many parts designed and/or 3D printed by JPL are on the Mars rovers. Of 11 printed parts on Perseverance (Percy), five are in rover’s PIXL instrument. Short for the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, the lunchbox-size device will help the rover seek out signs of fossilized microbial life by shooting X-ray beams at rock surfaces to analyze them.

PIXL shares space with other tools in the 88-pound (40-kilogram) rotating turret at the end of the rover’s 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm. To make the instrument as light as possible, the JPL team designed PIXL’s two-piece titanium shell, a mounting frame, and two support struts that secure the shell to the end of the arm to be hollow and extremely thin. In fact, the parts, which were 3D printed by Carpenter Additive, have three or four times less mass than if they’d been produced conventionally.

Closer to home, JPL spacecraft, science instruments, and airborne missions help humanity study and track climate change, manage natural resources, and respond to disasters. And the giant dish antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network – built and managed by JPL – send and receive data from nearly all spacecraft traveling beyond the Moon.

The lab is currently working on missions to investigate the surface and interior of Venus and to study the ocean deep below the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Together with the European Space Agency, JPL plans to bring Martian rock samples back to Earth in the search for past signs of microscopic life on Mars, and those efforts will also help NASA prepare to send humans to Mars.

Additive manufacturing enabled the fabrication of high-performance, thermally stable antennas for astronomy and remote sensing.

Leading the AM space

As reported in its annual JPL Technology Highlights 2022, the first with new Director Laurie Leshin, additive manufacturing research was represented in three projects. The first was on efforts to 3D print aluminum reflectors for spacecraft antennas with topology-optimized backing structures for thermal stability. This was led by Paul Goldsmith, with much of the printing work done by Ryan Watkins of the Technology Infusion Group.

The second was on the development of high-performance magnetic shielding produced by DED. This method allows for complex shapes to be produced from magnetic materials, like mumetal, and also functionally graded multi-metal alloys for magnetic applications. This work was led by Samad Firdosy.

Lastly, Hofmann’s own work with Caltech on jamming 3D printed fabrics, published in Nature, was also highlighted. This work has taken on a new life led by Tent Bordeenithikasem in a new collaboration with Caltech to make shape-changing antennas using printed fabrics.

The Additive Manufacturing Center (AMC) is JPL’s research laboratory and production facility for additive manufacturing.  It provides services in metal and polymer additive manufacturing (AM) for the Lab using Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF), Direct Energy Deposition (DED), and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technologies.  The AMC focuses on early-stage research and prototyping aimed at infusing new technologies for various missions and projects, and manufacturing space flight hardware and mechanical ground support equipment (MGSE) for NASA/JPL missions.

It is one of the premier facilities in the country for work in the development of multifunctional graded materials (AKA gradient alloys), multifunctional structures for extreme environments, two-phase heat exchangers, 3D printed compliant mechanisms, lattice structures, topology optimization, and Design for Additive Manufacturing (DFAM).  Research in the center focuses on developing new alloys, optimizing process parameters of metal 3D printers, and evaluating and collaborating with suppliers that provide additive manufacturing services.

Going forward

NASA JPL lays off 530 due to budget cuts: about 8% of the highly qualified workforce, plus 40 contractors, are now available to hire The workforce cuts will affect both technical and support areas of the Lab and across different organizations. All efforts will be made to streamline operations while maintaining a level of expertise, creativity, technical agility, and innovation that will enable JPL to continue to deliver on our current missions, including MSR.

Leshin and her team are taking every measure to make this very difficult transition easier to absorb but it’s clear that it represents a dramatic turn of events, for those directly affected as well as for NASA and for the US space program as a whole. This comes after the news that the Artemis 2 mission, which will fly astronauts around the Moon and back without landing, has been postponed from November 2024 to September 2025. Artemis 3, which is planned to land the first humans near the lunar south pole, has also been postponed from late 2025 to September 2026.

The space program is vital for the future of the US and for the future of humanity but unfortunately, there are some even more pressing matters taking place in many areas, with rising global tensions. It’s impossible not to think that budgets are being increasingly channeled towards ensuring global stability and security. At the same time, the increasing success of the private space sector – especially in the US – seems promising and could help to ensure humanity’s ability to explore space, although with a less scientific and more commercial approach. These private companies will likely be looking at former JPL employees with great interest.

 

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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