Bridenstine shutdown town hall
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine gives an update on the agency's recovery from a five-week government shutdown during a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters Jan. 29. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — As NASA reopens after the longest government shutdown in history, the agency’s administrator said Jan. 29 that a full recovery from the effects of the shutdown will take longer than the shutdown itself.

In a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters that was broadcast to the agency’s field centers on NASA Television, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine welcomed back the agency’s workforce after a 35-day shutdown that furloughed the vast majority of them. The event focused primarily on issues facing the NASA workforce, rather than the effects the shutdown had on agency programs.

“I know how trying the last month has been for so many of you,” Bridenstine said. “It has been tough. I want to say thank you for your patience and your commitment to this agency and to the mission that we all believe in so dearly.”

Bridenstine added that he was not immune from the effects of the shutdown. “From my perspective, personally, it has not been easy, either,” he said, noting that his confirmation process showed he was not a wealthy person. “This was not easy for me or my family probably any more than it was easy for you and your family.”

One of the first priorities once the shutdown ended late Jan. 25 was to handle back pay for the agency’s civil servant workforce. Bridenstine said the office of NASA’s chief financial officer worked over the weekend to make those arrangements. Agency employees should receive that back pay this week.

The situation is less clear for the agency’s contractors who, unlike civil servants, are not guaranteed back pay. “Every contract is different, and so we’re working through that right now,” Bridenstine said. Some contractors, he said, will be able to receive retroactive pay while others will not. “In the future, we’d like to standardize that more.”

During the town hall, one employee asked if NASA civil servants could contribute to crowdfunding efforts on platforms like GoFundMe to assist contractors. Doing so, agency officials said, poses potential legal problems.

“The problem with the GoFundMe idea and the campaigns is that you run into conflicts,” said Bob Gibbs, chief human capital officer. “When you’re dealing with contractors and federal employees, you don’t know who is contributing to whom and how that all works.” Neither he nor Sumara M. Thompson-King, the NASA general counsel, gave a clear-cut answer if such donations were permitted or prohibited, referring instead to a statement posted online last week about such donations.

Payroll is not the only area where NASA is working to catch up from the shutdown. The agency’s cybersecurity program “in the most part was fully functional” during the shutdown, said Renee Wynn, NASA’s chief information officer. That included pushing out the most critical software patches, she said, although lower priority patches were held back until after the shutdown ended.

Wynn added that about 35 websites across NASA were taken offline during the shutdown because of issues like the expiration of security certificates. Those sites, which did not include the main NASA public website, are now being brought online.

Fully recovering from the shutdown will take weeks, Bridenstine said. There was no “mass exodus” of employees from agency during the shutdown, but a handful of people at both NASA Headquarters and the field centers left during the shutdown, and contractors were in some cases reassigned by their employers and may no longer be available to work for NASA.

Bridenstine said he recalled that the last lengthy shutdown, which closed NASA for nearly three weeks in October 2013, took a lot longer than three weeks to recover from. That was a source of frustration for him, at the time a member of Congress. “Why does it take longer to get back into order after a shutdown?” he asked.

As the head of an agency affected by a shutdown, he says he has a better understanding of why it takes so long, including contractors who shift employees to other projects. “When we get back open, we have to hire new people and/or figure out how to get people back on the contracting side,” he said. “It is not a one-for-one delay. One day of shutdown does not equal one day of getting back into business.”

“We won’t really know the true impact for probably some period of time on what [the shutdown] did to the workforce,” Gibbs added.

With the shutdown now over at least temporarily — NASA and other agencies that were shut down are funded only through Feb. 15, pending a long-term deal in Congress — Bridenstine tried to focus on the year ahead, including showing a video of many of the activities the agency will be working on in 2019.

“It hasn’t been an easy start to 2019,” he said, but “we have a lot of really amazing projects coming up, a lot of really exciting things.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...