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Goddard Director: Shutdown May Force ‘Conflicts’ at Center Test Facilities

Goddard Director Chris Scolese said he could not yet quantify the effect of the shutdown, or say which projects would be given priority when shutdown-related delays create a face-off for time in one of Goddard’s test chambers, like the facility's high-bay clean room. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center photo by Chris Gunn

GREENBELT, Md. — The director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said Oct. 22 that disruptions from the recent government shutdown will force center management to rearrange testing schedules for a slew of projects to avoid traffic jams at the Greenbelt, Md., field center’s various testing facilities. 

“We have a number of projects going on, there are about 20 in development and all of them were impacted” by the shutdown, Goddard Director Chris Scolese said during a tour of Goddard’s Building 29, where work is once again proceeding on projects including the flagship James Webb Space Telescope after a 16-day government shutdown that ended Oct. 17. “As I’m standing here, my deputy [Arthur F. ‘Rick’ Obenschain] is off reviewing all the projects determining exactly what the impacts are, how we’re going to work them through this ... facility of ours to avoid conflicts. Because now, we’ve created more conflicts.”

Among Goddard’s test facilities are a thermal vacuum chamber, currently occupied by the James Webb Space Telescope’s core science instrument module, used for subjecting spacecraft to space-like temperature and pressure extremes; a centrifuge and acoustic chamber, both of which are used to subject spacecraft to the stresses of a rocket launch; and several clean rooms for assembling spacecraft, including the high-bay clean room currently occupied by the Global Precipitation Measurement spacecraft.

Scolese said he could not yet quantify the effect of the shutdown or say which projects would be given priority when shutdown-related delays create a face-off for time in one of Goddard’s test chambers.

On the Oct. 22 tour Scolese hosted his boss, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a staunch protector of Goddard programs.

Although Scolese’s staff is still crunching the numbers, the shutdown’s effect on at least one Goddard-led project is already known. The Global Precipitation Measurement spacecraft, a joint mission between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, now will launch about two weeks later than expected. 

The spacecraft, which will observe global rain and snowfall levels from a 400-kilometer orbit inclined at 65 degrees, was scheduled to launch Feb. 14 aboard a Japanese H-2A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.

Art Azarbarzin, project manager for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, said his team was locked out of Goddard for only 11 days of a 16-day shutdown, but that the early return was not enough to avoid a schedule bump.

“The shutdown rippled out internationally,” Azarbarzin told SpaceNews. 

In a twist, one Goddard project that had recently been caught in just the sort of traffic jam Scolese now foresees for other missions continued its scheduled testing during the shutdown.  

The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, a formation-flying observatory comprising four spacecraft that will study the interaction of the sun’s magnetic sphere with the Earth’s, was supposed to begin environment testing in Goddard’s thermal vacuum chamber this summer. However, the $850 million heliophysics mission got bumped out by Webb’s core instrument module, which has been in the chamber since mid-August.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, set to launch in spring 2015, was therefore diverted to the thermal vacuum chamber at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. The lab, a Defense Department facility, was considered too important to close when federal funding temporarily lapsed after Oct. 1, so one of the four Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission spacecraft continued testing during the shutdown.

Meanwhile, Mikulski said Oct. 22 that she would strive to avoid another government shutdown when the current stopgap spending measure expires Jan. 15 by pushing for an omnibus spending bill “where NASA has regular funding for 2014 that is predictable, reliable and gives everyone a way to have this certainty to be able to manage the complex projects they have.”

The amount of money Mikulski will have to work with depends on bipartisan, bicameral budget negotiations set to begin soon between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House budget committee, and his counterpart in the upper chamber, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The committee, created by the deal that reopened the government Oct. 17, has until Dec. 13 to wrap up negotiations.

Both chambers got spending bills out of their respective appropriations committees this summer, but the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate were billions of dollars apart in their suggested 2014 spending levels. The House wanted to hold spending to the reduced level prescribed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which created across-the-board sequestration cuts. The Senate ignored the sequester.

For NASA alone, House and Senate spending bills were about $1.4 billion apart, with the House recommending about $16.6 billion and the Senate recommending roughly $18 billion.

Of all the Goddard-led missions now in development, only the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution probe, or Maven, was spared from disruption, Scolese said. On Oct. 3, two days after the shutdown began, NASA deemed Maven essential to the protection of other missions in the Mars system because of the telecommunications package the Lockheed Martin-built orbiter carries.

Launch preparations for Maven then resumed at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where the spacecraft is set to launch Nov. 18 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

 

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

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