How Would a Government Shutdown Affect NASA?

by Nancy Atkinson on April 8, 2011

NASA faces the curtaillment of many jobs and services during a government shutdown including website updates. Image credit: (and with thanks) Heather Archuletta.

The big question weighing on the minds of anyone involved or interested in US space exploration is how a US government shutdown would affect the space agency. In short, if a NASA job or service is curtailed or a department or building is closed and it doesn’t threaten a life, a spacecraft, data, or a mission, it won’t be continued during a government shutdown. That means thousands of NASA employees would be furloughed, scientists for robotic missions won’t be able to work on gathering new data, and the STS-134 launch could be delayed indefinitely until Congress passes a budget.

While the shuttle mission wouldn’t launch as scheduled on April 29 to the International Space Station because of a shutdown, all NASA workers essential to the ISS and its operations would continue to work, as well as those who keep the space shuttle Endeavour – out on the launchpad – safe and stable. Additionally, engineers involved with NASA’s many space probes and Earth orbiting satellites who monitor spacecraft health and keep them functioning – those “necessary to prevent harm to life or property” as NASA put it, would keep working. But scientists and researchers involved with those missions will likely be sent home.

In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, NASA Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Robinson provided an update on how NASA will function in the event of a government funding hiatus. “The decision on what personnel should be excepted from furlough is very fact specific, and Directors in charge of NASA Centers are in the best position to make detailed decisions regarding the suspension of ongoing, regular functions which could imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property,” Robinson wrote.

For example, at NASA Headquarters, there are 1,611 total employees, and only 22 are considered “essential” and would not be furloughed. At NASA’s Ames Research Center, only 25 out of 1250 full time employees would not be furloughed if and when shutdown happens.

A government employee told us that during a furlough, even if someone is classified as “essential” or “exempted” and has to come in and work, they won’t get paid until later. For “non-essential” employees, there is no guarantee the government will provide any compensation for the time the government offices are is closed. “For the shutdown in 1995, they DID give everyone back pay,” said the employee, who wished to remain anonymous. “But this time? Who knows?”

For anyone who lives and breathes NASA on the internet, you will find your lifeblood cut. NASA TV will not broadcast. NASA websites will not be updated including the main nasa.gov site; the NASA Earth Observatory website sent out an email to notify subscribers that they will not be able to update starting April 9 if the shutdown occurs. This is for security reasons, since IT people won’t be there to maintain and secure the websites.

NASA employees, including astronauts who have “official” Twitter accounts have been ordered not to Tweet under a government shutdown and the same goes for Facebook updates for any official NASA account or mission. One exception is that ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli on board the ISS can still use Twitter.

Any tours and public access to NASA Centers and facilities will be canceled, and any NASA instructors at schools or universities will be ordered not to report. A news conference scheduled for April 12 at the Kennedy Space Center to announce which museums will have won the rights to display NASA’s three space shuttles would has been put on hold pending the government shutdown.

These and other things will occur if no agreement is reached on a fiscal year 2011 budget by midnight tonight, (Friday, April 8, 2011). For more details, see this NASA page which includes three pdf documents which outline what happens for the space agency during a government shutdown. Without getting into the politics, the entire situation is very sad and disheartening.

Thanks to Heather Archuletta (Pillownaut) for the lead image.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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