Smaller Probes Mean Smaller Work Force at JPL

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA--With no major scientific spacecraft left to build, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) intends to turn over more work to private industry and scale back its staff over the next 3 years. JPL director Ed Stone says that by 2000, the number of lab employees will fall from the current 6300 to 4800. At its peak in 1993, JPL employed 7600 people. Most of the coming reductions will result from farming out business systems and mission operations to companies, Stone told ScienceNOW. The downsizing will be especially painful this year: JPL intends to slash 700 people from its payroll by October.

The shrinkage reflects the end of an era for JPL. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin has pushed the agency to devise less complicated designs that can be built faster for a much lower cost. The Cassini spacecraft designed to study Saturn is the last of a series of such massive projects--a $1.3 billion satellite that was built and tested at JPL facilities. Once Cassini is shipped to Kennedy Space Center this spring for an October launch, JPL's long history of building increasingly larger and more complex planetary spacecraft will end.

Numerous smaller missions are on the drawing board, including at least one probe to Mars every 2 years for the next decade and a major infrared space telescope. JPL officials also are betting that NASA will move ahead with plans to send spacecraft to Pluto, the sun, and possibly Saturn's moon Titan and Jupiter's Europa, both of which could contain the ingredients for life. And initial work on a space-based interferometer is likely to win approval from Congress. But unlike Cassini and other previous missions, much of the construction of this next generation of probes will be done by private contractors like Lockheed Martin.

Indeed, four people on the Cassini project gave notice last week that they were leaving to join private industry, says Richard Spehalski, Cassini project manager. The change, says Stone, reflects the reality of NASA's tight budgets, Goldin's philosophy, and the trend toward farming out work. In the end, he says, such changes will benefit planetary science. "If you want to take the next step in exploring the planets," Stone says, "we must go back to much lower cost spacecraft."

For more details, see Science's Next Wave.