JPL layoff isn’t the fall of a civilisation

A historian of science I follow on Twitter recently retweeted this striking comment:

While I don’t particularly care for capitalism, the tweet is fair: the behemoth photolithography machine depicted here required advances in a large variety of fields over many decades to be built. If you played the game Civilization III, a machine like this would show up right at the end of your base’s development arc. (Or, in Factorio, at the bottom of the technology research tree.)

Even if we hadn’t been able to conceive and build this machine today, we still wouldn’t invalidate all the years of R&D, collaboration, funding, good governance, and, yes, political stability that came before to lead up to this moment. As such, the machine is a culmination of all these efforts but it isn’t the efforts themselves. They stand on their own and, to their great credit, facilitate yet more opportunities.

This may seem like a trivial perspective but it played through my mind when I read a post on the NASA Watch website, written by a Jeff Nosanov, a science-worker who used to work with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) until 2019. I was surprised by its tone and contents because they offer a twisted condemnation of why JPL was wrong to have laid off some 530 people last week.

According to CBS:

“The Los Angeles County facility attributed the cuts to a shrinking budget from the federal government. In an internal memo, the laboratory expected to receive a $300 million budget for its Mars Sample Return project for the 2024 fiscal year. Director Laurie Leshin said this accounts for a 63% decrease from 2023.”

Nosanov, however, would have us believe that the layoffs lead to the sort of uncertainties in the US’s future as a space superpower that history confronted the world with when the Roman empire fell, the Chinese navy dwindled in the early 16th century, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. To quote:

“The leaders of the past may not have known they were making historic mistakes. The Danish explorers who abandoned Canada may not have known about the Western Roman Empire. The Chinese Navy commanders may not have known about the Danish. Lost in the mists of history, those clear mistakes are understandable. Their makers may not have had the same knowledge of world history that we have today. But we do not have the excuse of ignorance.

History shows us both what happens when a superpower abandons a frontier – someone else takes it, and that such things are conscious choices. It is the height of folly, arrogance, and fully-informed ignorance for our leaders to allow this to happen. It will lay morale in a smoking ruin for a generation and hand the torch to China, who will be glad to take the lead. Humans will lead into the darkness, but they may not be American. That may not be the worst thing in the world, but it was not always the American way.”

The conceit here is breathtaking, patronising, and misguided. The fates of empires and civilisations have turned on seemingly innocuous events, sure, but NASA not being able to operate a Mars sample-return mission to the extent it would have liked in 2024 will not be such an event.

There are of course pertinent questions about whether (i) scientific work is implicitly entitled to public funding (even when it threatens to runaway), (ii) space science research, including towards an ambitious Mars mission, mediates the US’s space superpower status to the extent Nosanov claims it does, and (iii) this is the character of JPL’s drive in today’s vastly more collaborative modern spaceflight enterprise.

For example, Nosanov writes:

“JPL has produced wonders that have explored the farthest (the Voyager space probes left the solar system), dug the deepest (rovers and landers exploring the mysteries of life and the solar system underground on other planets) and lit the darkness (examined objects in space that have never – in five billion years – seen the light of the sun) of any of humanity’s pioneers.”

Many other space agencies with which NASA has allied through its Artemis Accords, among other agreements, are pursuing the same goals – explore the farthest, dig the deepest, light the darkest, etc. – with NASA’s help and are also sharing resources in return. In this milieu, harping on sole leadership because it’s “the American way” is distasteful.

As such, as a space superpower, the US brings a lot to the table, but I’m certain we’ll all be the better for it if it leaves any dregs of a monarchical attitude it may still retain behind. Of course, Nosanov isn’t JPL and JPL, and NASA by extension, are likely to have a different, more mature view. But at the same time, I saw many people sharing Nosanov’s post on Twitter, including some whose work and opinions I’ve respected before, but not one of them flagged any issues with its tone. So I’d like to make sure what the ‘official opinion’ is.

The simple reason JPL’s current downturn won’t be a world-changing event is that, despite recounting all those decisive moments from the past, Nosanov ignores the value of history itself. Recall the sophisticated photolithography machine and the summit of human labour, ingenuity, and cooperation it represents. Take away the machine and you have taken away only the machine, not the foundations on which the possibility of such innovation rests.

Similarly, it is ludicrous to expect anyone to believe NASA’s pole position in human and robotic spaceflight is founded only on its Mars sample-return mission, or in fact any of its Mars missions. This fixation on the outcomes over processes or ingredients over the recipe is counterproductive. The US space programme still has the knowledge and technological foundations required to manufacture opportunities in the first place – and which is what other countries are still working on building.

Put differently, that an entity – whether a space agency or a country – is a superpower implies among other things that it can be resilient, that it can absorb shocks without changing its essential nature. But if Nosanov’s expectations are anything to go by and the US falls behind China because JPL received 63% less than its demand from the US government, then perhaps it deserves to.

Realistically, however, JPL might get the money it’s looking for in future and simply get back on track.

The only part of Nosanov’s post that makes sense is the penultimate line: “JPL – and the people who lost their jobs today – deserve better.”