Brief shutdown offers warning of impacts to government and commercial space

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WASHINGTON – The first federal government shutdown in more than four years came to a swift end Jan. 22 but served as a warning of what a future shutdown could do to both government and commercial space efforts.

The Senate reached an agreement Jan. 22 on a modified version of a continuing resolution (CR) that will fund the government through Feb. 8, eight days earlier than the version that failed to win passage in the Senate late Jan. 19, triggering the shutdown. The House then passed the CR and President Trump signed it into law that evening.

Earlier in the day, the first weekday since the shutdown started, NASA and other federal agencies implemented their plans for an “orderly shutdown” of their activities. For NASA, that meant furloughing the vast majority of its civil servants and ending non-essential activities, including updates of its website and social media accounts and halting NASA Television programming.

The shutdown did not affect operations of the International Space Station or other ongoing missions. NASA had planned to proceed with a Jan. 23 spacewalk outside the station, the first of two scheduled this month to replace a “hand” on the station’s robotic arm, even in the event of a shutdown. The end of the shutdown means that NASA should be able to television the spacewalk and provide updates.

The shutdown also affected work by SpaceX, which is testing its Falcon Heavy rocket at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. While the company did perform fueling tests of the vehicle at the pad Jan. 20, the first full day of the shutdown, the U.S. Air Force said Jan. 21 that the furlough of civilian range personnel at the 45th Space Wing meant it could not support a static fire test that was scheduled for as soon as Jan. 22 there. That furlough also prevented the Air Force from supporting launches, although none were scheduled from Cape Canaveral facilities until late January, when a Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch Luxembourg’s GovSat-1 satellite.

SpaceX, in a Jan. 22 statement, confirmed that the shutdown was postponing its Falcon Heavy testing and launch plans. “This shutdown impacts SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy demonstration, which is critical for future [national security space] missions,” the company said. “It also impacts critical missions for our customers, including important international allies scheduled to launch shortly from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base, as well as upcoming missions this spring to resupply the International Space Station.”

Among the company’s upcoming launches include the Paz radar satellite for the Spanish government, scheduled to launch in February from Vandenberg, as well as the company’s next cargo mission to the ISS, planned for March or early April. United Launch Alliance’s next launch is not scheduled until March 1, when an Atlas 5 will launch the GOES-S weather satellite.

“We remain hopeful that the Congress will quickly resolve their differences and put our partners in the Air Force and NASA back to doing their important work as soon as possible,” SpaceX said in its statement, hours before the Senate reached an agreement on a new CR. While the company got its wish, its success is short-lived, as the agreement on the CR leaves unresolved bigger issues on spending levels and immigration.

There is also limited time to resolve those issues before the new CR expires: the House, scheduled to be in recess the rest of this week, will be in session only six days before the new CR expires Feb. 8.