NASA’s JPL Lays Off Hundreds of Workers

NASA's JPL announced a quick reduction in its workforce, putting missions like Mars Sample Return in jeopardy. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

In a disheartening turn of events, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has announced that it’s laying off about 8% of its workforce. That means that about 530 JPL employees will be let go, along with about 40 employees of the Lab’s contractors. That sucks for the people being let go, but the bigger concern for the rest of us is what will happen to upcoming missions like Mars Sample Return (MSR)?

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What’s Going on With the Mars Sample Return Mission?

The ESA/NASA Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions ever devised. Image Credit: ESA

Anybody with a modicum of intellectual curiosity is looking forward to the NASA/ESA Mars Sample Return Mission. NASA’s Perseverance rover is busily collecting and caching samples for eventual return to Earth. While the technical and engineering challenges in getting those samples into scientists’ hands here on Earth are formidable, budgeting and funding might be the mission’s biggest headaches.

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Witnesses Play Up the Alien Angle at Congressional UFO Hearing

Tic Tac object on infrared sensor image
Infrared imagery captured by a Navy fighter jet in 2004 shows an anomalous "Tic Tac" object, highlighted by a red circle. (U.S. Navy Video)

Three former insiders who have played a role in dealing with UFOs — or as they’ve now come to be known, unidentified anomalous phenomena — say the U.S. military knows more than what it’s been telling lawmakers about encounters with potentially alien technology.

During a House subcommittee hearing held today, one of the witnesses said he was told that non-human remains have been recovered from UAP incidents.

“As I’ve stated publicly already … biologics came with some of these recoveries,” David Grusch, a former intelligence officer who took on whistleblower status due to his claims, said in response to a question from Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C.

“Were they, I guess, human or non-human biologics?” Mace asked.

“Non-human,” Grusch replied. “And that was the assessment of people with direct knowledge on the program I talked to, that are currently still on the program.”

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According to a US Auditor, Each Launch of the Space Launch System Will Cost an “Unsustainable” $4.1 Billion

This will likely come as a surprise to no one who has closely watched the development of NASA’s next giant rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), but it’s going to be expensive to use.  Like, really expensive – to the tune of $4.1 billion per launch, according to the NASA Inspector General.  That’s over double the original expected launch cost.

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The House Makes NASA A Counteroffer It Probably Can’t Refuse

NASA's new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist's illustration)
NASA's new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist's illustration)

It looks like mostly good news in NASA’s budget for 2017. The Commerce, Justice, and Science sub-committee is the House of Representatives body that oversees NASA finances, and they have released details on how they would like to fund NASA in 2017. According to their plan, NASA’s budget would be $19.5 billion. That amount is $500 million more than President Obama had asked for, and $200 million above what the Senate had proposed.

If the bill is approved by the House of Representatives, then this budget would be NASA’s largest in 6 years (adjusted for inflation.)

While it is good news overall, some projects that were in NASA’s plans will not be funded, according to this bill.

On the chopping block is the Asteroid Re-Direct Mission (ARM). ARM is an ambitious robotic mission to visit a large asteroid near Earth, collect a boulder weighing several tons from its surface, and put it into a stable orbit around a Moon. Once the boulder was in a stable orbit, astronauts would visit it to explore and collect samples for return to Earth. NASA had touted this mission as an important step to advancing the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars.

ARM was an intriguing and ambitious mission, but it looks like it will be unfunded. The sub-committee explained that decision by saying “The Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the overarching mission to Mars,” adding that “…the long-term costs of launching a robotic craft to the asteroid, followed by a crewed mission, are unknown and will divert scarce resources away from developing technology and equipment necessary for missions to Mars.”

Another area seeing its funding cut is the Earth Science division. That division would lose $231 million compared to 2016.

There are winners in this bill, though. The Planetary Science division would receive a $215 million boost in 2017, compared to 2016. This means a 2022 mission to Europa is still on the books, and NASA can select two more Discovery class missions.

Beyond the numbers, the Commerce, Justice, and Science sub-committee also signalled its support for a human presence on the Moon. The sub-committee stated that “NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.” This is fantastic news.

The Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion program will also continue to receive healthy funding. These two programs are key to NASA’s long term plans, so their stable funding is good news.

There are some groovy technologies that will receive seed funding in this proposed budget.

One of these is a tiny helicopter that would work in conjunction with a rover on the surface of Mars. This solar-powered unit would fly ahead of a rover, acting as a scout to locate hazards and places of interest. This project would receive $15 million.

With a body the size of a tissue box, this helicopter would partner with a Martian rover, and help the rover cover more ground in a day. Image: NASA
With a body the size of a tissue box, this helicopter would partner with a Martian rover, and help the rover cover more ground in a day. Image: NASA

Another new technology receiving seed money is the Starshade. The Starshade would augment the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). WFIRST is a space telescope designed to study dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. The Starshade would be separate from the WFIRST, and by blocking the light from a distant star, would allow WFIRST to image planets orbiting that star. The goal would be to detect the presence of oxygen, methane, and other chemicals associated with life, in the atmosphere of exoplanets.

An artist's illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA
An artist’s illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA

The funding bill also directs NASA to consider forms of propulsion that could propel a craft at 10% of the speed of light. This includes Bussard ramjets, matter-antimatter reactors, beamed energy systems, and anti-matter catalyzed fusion reaction. The bill asks that within a year of being passed, NASA creates a draft reporting addressing interstellar propulsion, and that a roadmap be put in place for further development of these systems. The hope is that one of these systems will be in place for a trip to Alpha Centauri in 2069, which will be the 100 year anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing.

It should be noted that these numbers are not approved yet. Some of these numbers go back and forth between the levels of government before they are finalized. It would take a lesson on governance structure to explain how that all works, but suffice it to say that although they’re not finalized, yet, things look good overall for NASA.

Imagine What Could Be Done With a “Penny4NASA”

NASA's % of the U.S. budget over the years

If you’re reading this then you’re probably a big fan of space exploration. And while on one hand you could say that we are now living in a “golden age” of exploration, what with the ongoing missions there are around the Solar System and the new discoveries being made on an almost weekly basis about our Universe, on the other hand it seems like we are getting more and more “grounded” as human explorers, with still years to go before the first footprints are made on Mars, an ever-growing span since we last walked on the Moon, and steadily-shrinking or stagnant budgets that can’t support all the missions that DO exist — and sometimes cancel them altogether.

“We have discovered amazing places. But imagine what’s hiding where we haven’t even looked?”

In order for missions to ever get off the ground, they need to be funded. Right now NASA — still arguably the leader in space exploration among world agencies — receives a little over 0.4 percent of every U.S. tax dollar. Less than half a penny. That’s what NASA explores the Solar System with, what makes our knowledge of the Universe — from the farthest visible reaches right down to our own planet Earth — even possible. What if NASA were to receive a full one percent? A whole penny from every dollar? That’d still be only a quarter of what NASA worked with to put men on the Moon in 1969, but it’d be more than double what it gets now.

A penny for NASA… this is the goal of, an outreach group that strives to increase the funding — if just by a little — of the world’s most accomplished, inspirational, and powerful space exploration administration. (Before… you know, it isn’t.)

The video above was created for Penny4NASA by artist and animator Brad Goodspeed, and reminds us of what NASA has achieved in its 50-year history, of what its goals are (or at least should be) and, unfortunately, why many of them have remained unattained. NASA needs support — our support — or else its candles will stay unlit and our windows and doors to the Universe will slowly but surely close.

How can you help? Well for one thing, stay excited about space and science (and get others excited too!) Interest is the key to making sure people don’t lose sight of what’s happening in the field; you might be surprised to hear the misinformation that’s been passed around. (No, NASA isn’t “dead.”) And let your policy-makers know that space exploration and the investment in technology and innovation that goes along with it is important to you — the Planetary Society has a convenient page where you can find links to write to your state representative here. And finally you can support groups like Penny4NASA, made up of enthusiastic young professionals who want to see our nation’s past successes in space exploration continued into their future.

“America is fading right now. Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore. NASA knows how to dream about tomorrow — if the funding can accommodate it, if the funding can empower it.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Want more inspiration? Read this excerpt from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles on here.

Video credit: Brad Goodspeed/

House Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Spaceflight Safety

Witnesses give statements to the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics hearing on spaceflight safety yesterday. Image Credit: Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics


The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space & Aeronautics held a hearing yesterday on the issue of how to ensure the future safety of human flight into space for both commercial and governmental agencies. The hearing was attended by a number of witnesses that represented NASA, one from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the CEO of a risk-analysis firm, and a former astronaut. The subcommittee was chaired by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

This hearing comes on the tails of the Augustine Commission final report, which examined the future of spaceflight in the U.S. and laid out a “flexible path” plan that includes utilizing private, commercial firms for human transport into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station.

Yesterday’s hearing was meant to help inform members of Congress about the safety concerns presented to manned flights, and what future regulations will be needed if commercial companies start to have a larger role in human spaceflight. The hearing’s charter states as its purpose:

On December 2, 2009 the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics will hold a hearing focused on issues related to ensuring the safety of future human space flight in government and non-government space transportation systems.  The hearing will examine (1) the steps needed to establish confidence in a space transportation system’s ability to transport U.S. and partner astronauts to low Earth orbit and return them to Earth in a safe manner, (2) the issues associated with implementing safety standards and establishing processes for certifying that a space transportation vehicle is safe for human transport, and (3) the roles that training and experience play in enhancing the safety of human space missions.

Witnesses at the hearing included Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance for NASA Bryan O’Connor, Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Council Member John C. Marshall, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation Bretton Alexander, Vice President of Valador, Inc. Dr. Joseph R. Fragola, and former astronaut Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, USAF, who flew in some of the Apollo and Gemini missions.

Each witness gave statements to the panel, all of which is available in .pdf format on the committee’s site. After hearing the testimony of these witnesses, Rep. Giffords said:

“At the end of the day, I am left with the firm conviction that the U.S. government needs to ensure that it always has a safe way to get its astronauts to space and back. As I have said in the past, I welcome the growth of new commercial space capabilities in America and do not see them as competitors with, but rather complementary to the Constellation systems under development. Based on what we’ve heard today, I see no justification for a change in direction on safety-related grounds. Instead, I am very impressed with the steps that have been taken to infuse safety into the Constellation program, and want to encourage their continued efforts to make Ares and Orion as safe as possible.”

Part of the reason for the hearing was to compare the safety of commercial vehicles to the Constellation program for getting astronauts to the International Space Station after the Shuttle program is shut down. Constellation won’t be ready to go until 2015 at the earliest, so the gap of five years could potentially be filled by private contractors.

Of course, you might notice that only one of the members of the witness panel of six represents commercial interests, which has caused some critics – like the Orlando Sentinel – to call the safety hearing a “Pro-Constellation rally.” The Space Politics blog also pointed this lack of representation out.

Though commercial aerospace companies like SpaceX, Masten Space Systems and XCOR weren’t represented directly on the witness panel, they are members of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Bretton Alexander stressed the importance of safety in his statement, and also pointed out that private space companies could take over the majority LEO launches here at home to allow NASA and its partners the resources to go to the Moon (and beyond).

Source: House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics press release