“I have a hard time seeing how the Europa lander project continues without Culberson.” Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for The Planetary Society. Credit: SpaceNews illustration

SANTA FE, N.M. — A partial government shutdown that started Dec. 22 will once again force NASA to halt most of its non-essential activities and could hinder coverage of spaceflight events planned for the end of the year.

NASA is among the agencies whose funding lapsed at midnight Eastern time Dec. 22 when a continuing resolution (CR) that had been funding them expired. NASA is funded by the commerce, justice and science appropriations bill, one of seven yet to be passed by Congress. Five other bills, including for the Defense Department, have been passed, and those agencies are not affected by the shutdown.

Congress appeared to be on track to avoid a shutdown when the Senate approved on a voice vote Dec. 19 another CR that would run through Feb. 8. However, House leaders, after consulting with President Trump, amended that CR by adding $5 billion in border security funding. That CR, approved by the House on a party-line vote Dec. 20, is considered dead in the Senate because of opposition to that additional funding.

With Congress and the White House at an impasse, funding for at least part of the government lapsed for the third time in 2018. A brief lapse in February, lasting only about eight hours, had no effect on government operations. A shutdown in January lasted three days, temporarily interrupting activities.

NASA updated its shutdown plan Dec. 18. That plan is similar to the one it followed in its January shutdown, where the agency continues critical activities related to International Space Station and other spacecraft operations, any critical spaceflight hardware processing and general protection of life and property. All other activities will be suspended for the duration of the shutdown.

According to the updated shutdown plan, NASA has identified 437 full-time staff who will be excepted from the shutdown as well as 664 employees excepted on a part-time basis, out of a total workforce of 17,586. An additional 2,189 employees will be “on call” for any emergency needs. The rest of the agency’s civil servant workforce will be furloughed for the duration of the shutdown.

The duration of the shutdown remains uncertain. While discussions between Congress and the White House continue to seek a compromise version of a new CR, some fear the shutdown could continue through at least Jan. 3, when the new Congress convenes and the House, now with a Democratic majority, could pass a CR similar to the earlier Senate version.

An extended shutdown could jeopardize the agency’s ability to publicize some upcoming events, including the flyby of the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The spacecraft will make its closest approach to the distant body just after midnight Eastern Jan. 1, and NASA had planned to provide extensive coverage of the event on NASA TV and on the web.

However, NASA’s current shutdown plan, like previous ones, notes that, in the event of a shutdown, “Citizens will not have televised access to NASA operations and programming or access to the NASA Web site.” During the January shutdown, NASA interrupted NASA TV programming and stopped updating its website and social media.

The flyby itself, though, will not be affected by the shutdown should it continue through the rest of the year. The spacecraft is operated from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland, which will also host events for the flyby. Michael Buckley, an APL spokesman, said Dec. 20 that those events will proceed even if the government shutdown continues. Without NASA TV or its website, he said, “we’d likely use APL’s web and social media resources” to cover the flyby.

Besides NASA, the shutdown affects a number of other agencies involved in research activities that will be halted for the duration of the shutdown. “Those agencies are basically closed for business today,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), top Democrat on the House Science Committee and set to chair the committee in the next Congress, in a Dec. 22 statement. “As I’ve noted in previous shutdowns, as our competitors in other countries surge ahead in their R&D investments, we have basically shut down a large chunk of our federal science and technology enterprise.”

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...