The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's annual open house allows space geeks and budding young scientists a rare peek inside the missions behind the La Cañada Flintridge facility.
But the popular event, scheduled for June 8 and 9, has been canceled because of federal spending cuts. It typically attracts crowds of more than 15,000 each day.
"Everyone here is just horribly disappointed," said JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor. "This is an event we look forward to each year and we know the public really looks forward to attending it."
Blaine Baggett, JPL's director of communications and education, said in an email that canceling the event was a difficult decision.
"Open House feels like the best of our community when people from all walks of life, all ages, different cultures, you name it, they all come out because they are intellectually curious and excited about the great adventures the lab undertakes," he said.
Baggett, a La Cañada resident, described the event as a Disneyland experience for the science and engineering world that inspires not only the community, but also the employees.
"Open House is the public's affirmation of the lab's work and its purpose," he said.
Because of the cancellation, the facility will save roughly $400,000. The figure is a comparatively slim sum for an agency that deals with budgets into the billions, but the cancellation comes as NASA faces pressure to cut costs where it can amid the across-the-board federal spending reductions known as sequestration.
McGregor said the budget to put on the open house includes security, portable toilets, presentations and other items brought to the La Cañada Flintridge campus.
It also covers pay for hourly employees who educate the public on the space agency's missions.
About two-thirds of the scientists and engineers who work during open house are hourly employees, McGregor said.
Salaried employees volunteer their time, she added.
Between 700 and 1,000 employees work the event, said McGregor, and typically because they enjoy it. "No one is told they have to work," she said.
All NASA centers are currently reviewing public outreach efforts to deal with the budget pressures of sequestration. And once the "budget dust settles" later this year, McGregor has said JPL may still bring back the open house.
While JPL doesn't know of any other outreach events that will be cut this year, NASA may have a tighter budget next year, which means the public may have less of a chance to interact with the facility that successfully landed the car-sized rover Curiosity on Mars last year.
"We may see some significant impacts to outreach and education next year," McGregor said.
Some in California's congressional delegation — including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes the JPL campus — have urged the Obama administration to spare the space agency from deep funding cuts, arguing it could produce painful long-term effects.
In the absence of avoiding sequestration completely, he said in a statement, "we should do everything possible to save efforts that are incredibly successful in inspiring a new generation of American scientists and pioneers, like NASA's outreach and education programs."
Attendance at the event has increased over the past few years, with public interest piqued by the Curiosity mission to Mars, which JPL manages.
"There is a tremendous interest from the public to visit JPL," McGregor said.
The La Cañada facility still holds two to three free daily tours for the public, but they are often booked months in advance with a capacity of 80 people each, said McGregor.
Despite the space agency's budget woes, JPL has no plans to charge people for the tours, she said.
"This is their center," she said. "There is no reason to charge the public for coming in."