Foust Forward | The government shutdown’s shadow on commercial space

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Feb. 25, 2019 issue.

When NASA is away, the turkeys will play.

That’s what happened at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California during the five-week partial government shutdown, according to a report in a local newspaper, the Mountain View Voice. A flock of wild turkeys made the largely deserted center home during the shutdown, roosting in locations such as just outside the center’s main auditorium. The turkeys fled when the center reopened, but left behind a mess in the form of feathers and droppings that custodians had to clean up.

The shutdown created plenty of more figurative messes that NASA and other government agencies had to clean up after the 35-day shutdown ended in late January. Much of the attention that the shutdown generated focused on its effects on the agencies themselves and their programs, and the personnel who were out of work during that time. But the effects of the shutdown spread out far wider than many appreciated, particularly for commercial space.

Take, for example, Exos Aerospace, a small Texas company developing a reusable sounding rocket called SARGE. The company had planned to perform its second launch of SARGE — the rocket first flew in August — at Spaceport America in New Mexico in early January. But, when the shutdown hit, there was no one at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation available to make a desired modification to its launch license regarding wind limits.

Exos decided to delay its launch until early February, thinking that even if the shutdown was ongoing then, they could go ahead with the launch under the existing conditions in the license. However, the company then found that the wind models they needed from NOAA were unavailable, as that agency was also affected by the shutdown. So, shortly before the shutdown ended in late January, they decided to postpone the launch again to March.

The shutdown created a backlog of license applications and other paperwork at the FAA when it reopened. That led the office’s new head, Wayne Monteith, to make a tough decision: cancel its involvement in the annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, which the FAA started in the late 1990s and had, for most of its history, run on its own.

“If anyone in this room thinks that supporting this great conference is more important than licensing rockets and spaceports, and getting people off the ground, than you and I are just going to have to humbly disagree,” he said in a brief speech at the conference Feb. 12, run solely by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. He left after that speech, and no one else from FAA participated in the two-day event.

NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office, which licenses remote sensing satellites, was closed during the shutdown. “We weren’t prepared for such a long shutdown,” Tahara Dawkins, director of the office, said at the SmallSat Symposium Feb. 4. The office received several new license applications as well as initial contract forms during the shutdown, on top of the existing applications under review.

Dawkins said the office formally suspended review of the existing applications just before the shutdown started, so that the five weeks don’t count toward the 120 days the office has under federal law to review the applications. That’s little consolation, though, to the companies who will experience delays nonetheless on their applications.

The shutdown should chasten the commercial space industry a bit. For all the talk about the growth of the industry, the shutdown showed how dependent it remains on the government: sometimes for money, and other times for oversight. Moreover, commercial space isn’t considered essential enough to keep those government agencies open during the shutdown.

Perhaps if there’s another government shutdown in the future, the industry will have grown in size and importance to help insulate it from its effects. Hopefully, though, we won’t have to find that out any time soon. As this shutdown demonstrated, about the only winners are turkeys.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.