What does the government shutdown mean for NASA?

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Tuesday, October 1, 2013

From Spitzer Space Telescope's Facebook page
What has 18 arms, all of which are broken?

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
NASA who?
Psych, NASA is shut down.

An astronaut, an astronomer, and rocket scientist walk into a bar. Because their place of employment is not functional.

All joking aside, the government shutdown is a serious matter, leaving millions without work, without pay, and without the ability to update their employers’ social media sites.

NASA is among the organizations that the standstill in Congress has brought to a standstill. Of its 18,000 employees, only 600 will be allowed to work — that’s just 3 percent, compared to the 80 percent figure for federal workers as a whole — and those people still won’t be paid until the impasse ends. The other 17,400 workers must stay home, not touch their federally owned laptops, hide their work-sponsored smartphones in their freezers, ignore their government email accounts, and catch up on Breaking Bad.

NASA is retaining the (lucky or unlucky?) 600 workers to support the International Space Station (ISS), other missions currently in operation off the surface of planet Earth, and critical operations at each site. Work on planned missions will stop, though some provisions of the shutdown plan take into account that super-complicated and semi-integrated systems can’t just be abandoned willy-nilly: “If a satellite mission has not yet been launched, work will generally cease on that project. The extent of support necessary and the time needed to safely cease project activities will depend on whether any of the activities are of a hazardous nature (e.g., parts of the satellite may need to be cooled),” the plan says. But the workers who chill satellites and make sure ISS astronauts are still able to breathe won’t be paid until the government begins operating again.

The thousands of NASA workers who are furloughed are getting unpaid “vacation” time, and certain of the agency’s associated private contractors have been warned to limit their spending and preserve their resources. Which sounds a little bit apocalyptic.

There is a chance that furloughed employees will be paid retroactively when the shutdown ends (and also a chance that some contractors will be retroactively compensated for the days of unpaid leave or vacation they had to take). But certain contractors are out of luck. One NASA employee, who spoke with us on condition of anonymity, said, “There’s a huge construction project going on at our facility. Dozens of local construction workers have no chance of being repaid.”

Our source also described the mood and events at his site’s shutdown, which was to be finished before 1 p.m. Eastern time today. “People were wheeling cart after cart of food and office plants out of the building,” he said. “Everybody was eating the ice cream sandwiches out of the freezer.” Some changed their email auto-responders to snarky messages like, “NASA is currently closed due to a lapse in government funding. If you need anything, please contact your local Congressman.”

Last night, employees boiled off the site’s liquid nitrogen, a plume of cold gas billowing out. Other misfortunes were more abstract: “We had to shut down computational jobs [on computers],” the source said. “There were computations that take four weeks to run, and they were halfway through, and we just had to stop them. Even if we’re only shut down for a few days, some projects lost weeks of work. … When every last computer was shut off, there was a deafening silence.”

And from your own, non-computation-intensive computer, you won’t be able to access most of NASA’s websites. Although all the content still exists, of course, many sites aren’t live. “If the pages were accessible,” said our source, “IT security would have to be at work to monitor for hacking, etc. In order to fully comply with the federal government, all non-critical staff have to be gone, and the safest thing for the websites is to shut them down too.”

So don’t try to see NASA’s pictures, don’t try to participate in any NASA outreach programs, don’t expect any updates from missions, don’t wait for AsteroidWatch to let you know if you’re about to be hit by a space rock, and don’t try to email any of your NASA-employed friends. Do, though, ask them to go to lunch with you or something, because they are probably bored.

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