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As U.S. Government Shuts Down, Most NASA Work To Grind to a Halt

WASHINGTON — Nearly every NASA activity besides international space station (ISS) operations are poised to grind swiftly to a halt following the failure of Congress to avert a government shutdown.

Active robotic missions, such as the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer now on the way to the Moon, and satellites in Earth orbit, such as the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite constellation, will be maintained by skeleton crews, spokesman Allard Beutel told SpaceNews Sept. 30. NASA will make sure that data continues to funnel in from across the solar system, but scientists and engineers will be prohibited from doing anything with it during the shutdown. 

All told, only about 549 full- and part-time NASA employees — about 3 percent of the more than 18,000 who work at the agency — will be treated as essential personnel exempt from furlough during a shutdown, Beutel said.

“The estimated time to complete the shut-down for routine agency activities, which includes the vast majority of NASA employees, contractors, and facilities, is less than one half-day,” NASA Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Robinson wrote in a Sept. 27 letter to Sally Ericsson, program associate director at the White House Office of Management and budget. 

Some programs will be exempt from immediate shutdown, such as those in the middle of delicate tests, Beutel said. One such program is the James Webb Space Telescope, an astrophysics flagship mission that, at an estimated cost of about $8.8 billion to build, launch and operate for five years, has already been plagued by expensive delays. Some of the observatory’s instruments are now undergoing cryogenic vacuum testing at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. 

In the chilled-down chamber now is the telescope’s integrated science instrument module, which has been fitted with two of the four instruments it will eventually carry to space. 

Those tests are “being allowed to continue because if you stop it, that has long-term implications,” Beutel told SpaceNews. These tests were slated to continue for about another two months, as of late September. 

Other programs will get no reprieve, tight schedule or not. For example, launch preparations for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe will cease under the shutdown. Slated to launch Nov. 18, the orbiter has so far been a poster-child for on-time, on-budget performance, winning accolades back in April in the Government Accountability Office’s Assessment of Selected Large-Scale Projects.

Mars launch windows occur only once every 26 months; missing one would mean a costly delay. 

So far for MAVEN, “there is some cushion in their processing schedule, so it’s not a day-for-day effect on the Nov. 18 target launch date,” Beutel said. “Obviously, if the shutdown lasts for some time, we’ll have to reevaluate things.” 

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