NASA Celebrates Return To Work, But Shutdown’s Shadow Could Linger

After 16 days off the job, most employees at NASA returned to work today (Oct. 17). The good news came after a late-night deal by U.S. politicians to reopen government activities until Jan. 15 and raise the debt limit — originally expected to expire today — until Feb. 7. Democrats and Republicans were battling over the implementation of a new health care law; more details on how the deal was reached are available in this New York Times article.

During the shutdown, only mission-essential functions at NASA were completed except at areas such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which are run by contractors. Twitter, Facebook and social media updates went silent. Missions were run on a needs-only basis, and for a while it looked as though the upcoming MAVEN mission to Mars might be delayed (although it got an exception due to its role as a communications relay for NASA’s rovers.)

So you can imagine the happiness on social media when NASA employees returned to work.

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Given the length of the shutdown,  not all work can just start immediately. Experiments have been left unattended for more than two weeks. Equipment needs to be powered back on. Cancelled meetings and travel arrangements need to, as it is possible, be rebooked.

At NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, spokesperson Don Amatore asked employees to be mindful of safety precautions, according to All Alabama. He also stated that “liberal leave” is in effect for employees today and on Friday, meaning that employees are able to take time off without requesting it beforehand — as long as their supervisors know.

Several Twitter reports from NASA contractors on Thursday also indicated that they were unsure if they would be coming back to work on that day, or at some point in the near future. The agency, however, was reportedly sending automated telephone updates to employees and contractors advising them to check with their supervisors for information.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, 747SP basks in the light of a full moon shining over California’s Mojave Desert. NASA photographer Tom Tschida shot this telephoto image on October 22, 2010 NASA Photo / Tom Tschida
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, 747SP basks in the light of a full moon shining over California’s Mojave Desert. Photo / Tom Tschida

The long-term effects of the shutdown are still coming to light. Certain NASA researchers who planned Antarctic work this year may lose their entire field season. Also, some researchers using NASA or government telescopes missed their “window” of telescope time. “SOFIA remains grounded as a testament to stupidity. Europa keeps her secrets,” wrote Mike Brown,  a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, on Twitter Oct. 13 about NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Additionally, the S&P ratings agency noted that the U.S. economy lost $24 billion due to the shutdown, which is more than the initial $17.7 billion request for NASA’s budget in fiscal 2014. Given the agency is in the midst of budget negotiations and is worried about the viability of the commercial crew program, among other items, any long-term economic damage could hurt NASA for a while.

NASA and other government agencies also have only three months of relative stability until the government reaches another funding deadline. What do you think will happen next? Let us know in the comments.

What Does The Government Shutdown Mean For NASA?

A forthcoming NASA launch to Mars could be in danger of losing its launch window should a shutdown in the United States federal government that began today (Oct. 1) continue for a while. That’s just one of the ways in which NASA is affected amid a lapse of funding that is affecting all government agencies and an untold number of government contractors.

Around 97% of NASA’s 18,000 employees are off the job. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and other social media accounts are going dark. NASA’s website is being pulled offline. NASA Television has also ceased broadcasting.

Beyond the agency’s public face, activities ranging from certain commercial crew payouts, to conference attendance, to scientific work will cease. Awards and scholarship approvals will be delayed.

“NASA will shut down almost entirely,” said President Barack Obama in a speech late Monday (Sept. 30).

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In addition to the agency’s public relations activities, NASA is planning to launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft to Mars in November to examine the Red Planet’s atmosphere. There are all sorts of questions vexing scientists concerning that planet, with one of the most prominent ones being why the atmosphere thinned over the years.

Media reports indicate that if the shutdown is lengthy, MAVEN could miss the launch window and have to try again in 2016.

“A shutdown could delay the pre-launch processing currently under way with a possible impact to the scheduled Nov. 18 launch date,” Dwayne Brown, a NASA senior public affairs officer at NASA, told The Planetary Society in a story published yesterday (Sept. 30). The launch window extends for several weeks beyond that time, however.

The 3% of NASA employees who are deemed essential will work without pay until the situation is resolved. These are some of the things that will continue:

The International Space Station.  Credit: NASA
The International Space Station. Credit: NASA
  • International Space Station monitoring will be maintained, but with the bare minimum of ground crew. (NASA will cease regular updates of the astronauts’ activities during the furlough, although we presume if something urgent happened there would be an update.)
  • Robotic missions that are already in operation — think the Cassini spacecraft circling Saturn, or the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) winging its way to the moon — will have small crews making sure that they are functioning properly. No scientific analysis will be conducted, though.
  • Certain other programs will continue if a shutdown would be detrimental to their performance. Space News reports that the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope will be among them, as some of its instruments are undergoing cryogenic vacuum testing at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
  • Update, 1:09 p.m. EDT: Several missions run out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Applied Physics Laboratory are running as usual for at least the next week because these facilities are running under contracted money from NASA and still have funds in the bank. According to the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla: “At JPL, that includes: Curiosity; Opportunity; Odyssey; Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; Cassini; Dawn; Juno; Spitzer; the Voyagers; and WISE, among many others. At APL, that includes MESSENGER and New Horizons. It also includes the Deep Space Network.”
  • Additional Update, 2:09 p.m. EDT: The HiRISE twitter account just replied to inquiries from several space journalists that they will be “open for business” as usual, which is great news since the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter made an audacious attempt to take images of Comet ISON during the comet’s closest approach to Mars today. We’ll provide any news and updates on images as they become available, but the HiRISE team said getting the images back to Earth and processing them may take a day or two.
  • Many observers noted that NASA is marking its 55th anniversary today by shutting down its activities. There’s no word yet on when the deadlock in Congress will be resolved. The last two shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 (which began in the middle of the STS-74 shuttle mission to Mir) lasted several weeks.

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    How Would a Government Shutdown Affect NASA?

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    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.