NASA shutdown plans follow familiar script

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WASHINGTON – As the federal government begins its first shutdown in more than four years Jan. 20, NASA’s operating plans are little changed from that earlier shutdown, with most agency employees set to be furloughed.

The continuing resolution (CR) that had been funding the federal government expired late Jan. 19 with no new appropriations bill taking its place. The House had passed Jan. 18 a CR that would have extended funding through Feb. 16, but the Senate could not win the necessary 60 votes to approve the bill, with most Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans voting to block consideration because of debates on immigration issues and a broader budget plan.

Negotiations continued after midnight on the Senate floor, with the hope that an alternative deal could be reached, perhaps in time to pass a funding bill before the next working day Jan. 22. Nonetheless, the lapse in appropriations is the first for the federal government since a 17-day shutdown in October 2013.

With the shutdown underway, NASA will now enact a plan submitted Nov. 30 to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). That plan would furlough most of the agency’s workforce, leaving only those needed for the safety of human life or protection of property.

Specific exemptions included in the plan include launch processing activities “necessary to prevent harm to life or property,” the operation and support of the International Space Station and other ongoing missions, and completion or “phase-down” of research where a temporary suspension could result in serious damage to property.

Activities that would not continue, according to the plan, include educational work, public access to NASA centers and operation of NASA Television and the agency’s websites. As of early Jan. 20, though, both NASA TV and the main NASA website were still operational. The memo states that NASA will “carefully evaluate the circumstances” of the shutdown before determining when to begin the “orderly shutdown of non-excepted activities.” In most cases, that orderly shutdown would be no earlier than Jan. 22, the first working day after the lapse in funding.

NASA officials said at a Jan. 18 briefing that a pair of spacewalks outside the ISS, scheduled for Jan. 23 and 29, would take place even if a government shutdown were in effect. “We’ll see all the same normal mission critical folks on site, and we’ll continue to execute the EVA plan and everything that’s coming in the near term after that,” said Kenny Todd, operations and integration manager for the ISS.

However, the spacewalks may not be broadcast on NASA TV since it would be turned off under the terms of the agency’s shutdown plan. Agency spokesperson Gary Jordan said at the briefing that coverage of the spacewalks, should the shutdown continue, “is still being assessed at the Headquarters level.”

That plan should be familiar to those at the agency. The Nov. 30 memo to OMB is almost identical to one the agency submitted to OMB in September 2013 in advance of the previous government shutdown. The new plan includes no major additions or deletions from the 2013 plan, and in many places is word-for-word identical to the older memo.

One difference is the number of people who are considered essential and would continue to work during a shutdown. The 2013 memo identified 367 full time equivalent (FTE) positions exempt from furlough out of an agency total of 18,250 FTEs, or two percent of the NASA workforce.

The new plan counted 800 FTE positions exempt from furlough, out of 17,524 FTEs, or 4.5 percent. However, these figures are from September 2015, the last time the shutdown plan was updated prior to November 2017. Numbers of exempted employees are larger at most centers under the plan, with Goddard seeing the biggest increase, from 80 to 334 FTEs, which may reflect ongoing spacecraft development and testing activity there at that time.

The plan also instructs NASA contractors – which the plan includes the staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is operated by Caltech for NASA – to take “all prudent and possible steps” to minimize costs during the shutdown. That includes limiting awards of new contracts and changes to existing ones. Contractor travel, the plan states, should be delayed during the shutdown unless there would be “severe adverse impact on the remaining permissible effort.”