How Would a Government Shutdown Affect NASA?

by Nancy Atkinson on April 8, 2011

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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 is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

William928 April 8, 2011 at 11:14 PM

I’m utterly disgusted with Congress. Now they’re fighting over whether to fund Planned Parenthood and supporting Women’s reproductive rights. The Republicans are committed to ferrying America into the Dark Ages. Absolutely reprehensible. HSBC, is there any room down under?

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 9, 2011 at 2:31 AM

Heaps! We always welcome Americans because they often become actively involved in our Society. At least our Federal budget is expected to again move back into surplus next year!
Cheers!

Aqua April 11, 2011 at 7:19 PM

Bah and HUMBUG! There’s PLENTY of money to go around! We could use sea shells or mustard seed for currency if we wanted to! That is, if we were to agree to a whole new currency, then how would the greedy inbred hoard their wealth?

Aqua April 11, 2011 at 7:22 PM

Mustard seeds and Sea shells for all!

Manu April 8, 2011 at 11:14 PM

“astronauts who have “official” Twitter accounts have been ordered not to Tweet ”
How more ridiculous than this can it get? And what about 1st Amendment anyway? ;_;

delphinus100 April 9, 2011 at 1:43 AM

No one’s keeping anyone for speaking for themselves on their own Twitter or Facebook accounts (if they have any), just no speaking *for* their employer *on* their employer’s accounts…

The First Amendment is secure.

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 9, 2011 at 2:36 AM

Funny. The First Amendment, however, doesn’t guarantee to pay the bills, though. Now does it?

Hon. Salacious B. Crumb April 9, 2011 at 4:52 AM

Good to see that they pass the bill in the final moments just after midnight.

Yet only 40 billion dollars was cut from the budget, and far from turning around the Federal deficit. Regardless, Americans will for some time have to live within their means before the situation improves.

Obama said “Programs people rely on will be cut back… Needed infrastructure projects will be delayed.”

As the New York Times rightly says;

“Lawmakers said they realized that the outcome of the negotiations would have implications not only for them, but also for the federal work force, the public, the economy and the nation’s image.
“We know the whole world is watching us today,”, Mr. Reid said.”

Happily, NASA employees will be paid their wages, though the future of its workforce are certainly facing redundancy in the next few years. I’d think they would now be more worried about their ongoing employment.

Torbjorn Larsson OM April 9, 2011 at 11:54 AM

Good for NASA (and US).

Now let me see if I understand the political game involved:

Reps wants to cut, so propose to cut a mere 100 GUSD. Dems want to increase, so cuts smallish this year and expect to increase years to come.

Then Reps get “serious” and lay 60 GUSD on the table. Dems stay with earlier cuts (whatever they were).

At crunch time Reps scare with 600 GUSD cuts. Dems propose to cut 30 GUSD more as compromise.

Result 40 GUSD cuts.

I think the Dems won this one, and the Reps are toeing the line of “WTF are we doing – but at least we know how to fight ugly and loose”. Am I right?

Torbjorn Larsson OM April 9, 2011 at 11:56 AM

D’oh! “lose”.

vagueofgodalming April 9, 2011 at 2:30 PM

It’s being interpreted as a Republican victory. Think, for example, about Obama’s plans for NASA: clearly, nothing like that is going to happen now.

I think the crucial factor is that Boehner can adopt a classic position of weakness: he can’t control his right wing – thus he is weak – but that makes him strong in external negotiations, because he can say “if you don’t give me what I’m asking for, I can’t vouch for what the crazy people on my team will do”. Gorbachev used to use this tactic, too.

andtrz April 10, 2011 at 2:53 AM

Is anyone aware of where this money comes from? Congress does not simply order new money into existence to pay for programs. Every dollar spent must be backed by a dollar taken (by threat of force) from the citizenry…unless, of course, it is borrowed…then that single dollar must be backed by several taken from the citizenry.

Aqua April 11, 2011 at 6:57 PM

What? No NASA TV? I like watching activities aboard the ISS… bummer if that goes away. Dzzz etc.

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