NASA Is Grounded

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Oct 1, 2013
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The United States government is shut down. The ramifications of this are both broad and deep, and I urge you to read the numerous articles on Slate covering this news.

Since space is my place, though, I want to remind you that the shutdown means NASA is grounded. A staggering 97 percent of NASA employees have been furloughed. This means all nonessential science has been stopped dead.

To me, all science is essential, so perhaps I should give some details. So much work has been halted that it’s far easier to say who is going to work today. Basically, it's only people involved in International Space Station operations—ensuing the safety of humans currently in space is a clear priority—as well as people who make sure NASA property is protected. (UPDATE, Oct. 1, 16:00 UTC: To be clear, operations for missions currently underway are also being continued.)

What this really means, though, is that about 17,500 NASA employees are staying home today. Out of 18,000 NASA employees.

This may severely affect future missions. Any mission not already underway will have its work halted. As an urgent example, up until today NASA scientists and engineers were busily preparing the Mars MAVEN mission for its scheduled launch on Nov. 18. That work must cease, and the ramifications are not good: Launching a probe to another planet is beholden to the laws of physics as much as to those of Congress. Mars and Earth must be in the right positions for the spacecraft to launch, and those windows only occur every 26 months. If MAVEN doesn’t launch, it’ll be 2016 before worlds align again. The cost for this will be large; people will have to find other work (where it’s unclear if and when they can go back to the old mission and how much time it will take to get back up to speed). It’s a physical risk to wait as well; the spacecraft will have to be transported and stored, and every trip on Earth increases the chance of a problem. The critical malfunction of the NASA Galileo probe was almost certainly due to a delay in launch.

[UPDATE 2 (Oct. 3, 2013): Good news! MAVEN has been declared an essential mission, since it will be used as a communication relay for other Mars missions. That means prep for launch will resume. The Planetary Society has the story. Sadly, other NASA missions, including the James Webb Space Telescope, are not so lucky, and work on them is still on hold.]

The government shutdown also means all NASA outreach is offline, and that includes all websites and social media. Want to keep up with NASA via Twitter? Nope:

Want to know if any asteroids are passing near the Earth? Nope:

Mind you, astronomers will still be watching the skies, but NASA won’t be able to tell you what they see.

If you go to the NASA website, you get the notice at the top of this post. A sincere apology, perhaps, but a sad one all the same.

The frosting on the cake? Today is NASA’s 55th anniversary. On Oct. 1, 1958, President Eisenhower established the civilian space agency as a way for this great nation to explore the Universe. As of today, 55 years later, they cannot do what their charter asks.

So happy birthday, NASA. It looks like you get to take some very much unwanted time off.