Editorial | Collateral Damage: NASA Bears the Brunt of the U.S. Government Shutdown’s Impact

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Two weeks into the congresionally orchestrated U.S. government shutdown, it has become painfully clear that budgetary chaos is the new norm in Washington. Where once there was a fairly predictable, if somewhat messy, process under which U.S. government space agencies could manage their activities, today NASA would settle for getting its employees back to work. Serial continuing resolutions and sequestration — real issues that hobble current activities and render future planning all but impossible — seem quaint nowadays.

Contractors, who in recent years have been shedding workers due to the cyclical dropoff in federal spending, are furloughing thousands on account of the selective shutdown. The Aerospace Corp., the U.S. Air Force’s brain trust for space, announced temporary layoffs for nearly 60 percent of its 3,500 employees, for example. Conferences and other events that facilitate government-industry exchanges, meanwhile, are being canceled due to severe travel restrictions on federal employees.  

If there’s any good news, it’s that the shutdown poses no immediate threat to ongoing U.S. military space operations — these were exempted because they are essential, and in any case most of the Defense Department has returned to work. Civilian weather satellite operations, essential for public safety, are similarly unaffected.

NASA has received dispensation to staff the control centers for ongoing missions, including the international space station. Also exempted from the shutdown is work necessary to avoid schedule disruptions on a pair of time-critical development projects: the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, which will be delayed two years if it misses its launch window this November; and the massively over-budget James Webb Space Telescope, whose instrument module is currently being maintained in a super-cold state in a cryogenic test chamber at the Goddard Space Flight Center. 

But virtually all other NASA activities, in particular the research and development projects that represent the core of the agency’s mission, have ground to a halt. There are no civil servants available to approve contractor-proposed changes on space hardware programs, for example, or to clear programs to move from one phase to the next. The result will be either missed opportunities to make common-sense improvements or, more likely, costly delays.

NASA scientists will not be available to analyze data from missions, or to authorize operating changes that might enable a probe to shift its focus from, say, one star to another in response to some observed phenomenon. More missed opportunities.

Needless to say, the shutdown is a big blow to NASA employee morale, which has suffered for years under the weight of a slew of underfunded agency mandates — a situation that has grown worse with sequestration. This, in turn, can negatively impact productivity and effectiveness. 

It is pointless at this stage to urge Congress to do the right thing and pass legislation that funds the government — even if only temporarily — with no political strings attached. This is a group that repeatedly shirks one of its most fundamental responsibilities — passing a budget — and apparently views costly confrontation as a safer route to re-election than constructive compromise. 

The worst offenders are the hardline Republicans in the House, many of whom claim — laughably — to be NASA supporters. These members chose, consequences be damned, to make the 2014 budget the latest battleground in their quixotic campaign to overturn or substantially weaken a health care policy law that passed more than three years ago. 

Even if Congress manages to pass a bill to end the shutdown tomorrow, the best-case scenario appears to be a continuing resolution that funds federal agencies at 2013 levels and keeps the sequestration budget cuts firmly in place. Sequestration, meanwhile, has effectively become the new status quo, and while its onset did not bring immediate catastrophe, it is having measurable negative impacts. It factored into the Air Force’s decision to turn off certain space-surveillance assets while delaying a next-generation system, for example. Over time, sequestration will severely erode the nation’s space capabilities, civil and military.

For a space industry that under the best of circumstances would be coping with a government spending downturn, the only thing scarier than the current situation is the prospect that this Congress will somehow find a way to make things worse. Unfortunately, that may be the one thing this bunch is capable of.