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NASA's robotic mission control begins cutbacks

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which guides NASA's Mars rovers, is laying off hundreds of contractors and employees in anticipation of a shift away from robotic planetary missions.
/ Source: Reuters

The California space laboratory that guides NASA's Mars rover missions has begun laying off workers in anticipation of a budget shift away from planetary expeditions, a spokesman said  Thursday.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena expects to shed 5 percent to 8 percent of its work force of 5,400, or about 300 contractors and employees, spokesman Blaine Baggett said.

JPL saw two missions canceled as a result of the budget realignment by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who plans to spend more money on missions to study Earth from space, Baggett said.

"We do Earth missions as well, so down the line we may get some of that (money)," Baggett said.

Canceled were the Prometheus mission to explore the icy moons of Jupiter, and the 2009 launch of a Mars telecommunications orbiter.

The job losses were not related to President Bush's goal of returning astronauts to the moon and setting up a moon base as a waystation for deeper space travel, Baggett said.

The last time the laboratory cut jobs was in 1999, he said.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory plays a role in about two dozen missions. They include the twin Voyager missions launched in 1977 and heading out of the solar system; the Ulysses solar polar mission monitoring the sun; the Cassini-Huygens mission orbiting Saturn; the Stardust spacecraft that flew through a comet's tail and returns to Earth in January; and the Mars rovers as well as Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Odyssey orbiter.