If the U.S. Congress is unable to agree on a federal budget for 2011 before the current stopgap measure expires on March 4, the potential government shutdown that would follow would not leave NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery in the lurch.

Discovery blasted off Feb. 24 on an 11-day mission to the international space station — a spaceflight that will be the shuttle’s final mission before being retired. The mission will extend through the March 4 deadline for congressional budget action, but a senior NASA official said that should not be a problem.

“I think from a top-level standpoint, we’ll be able to just press on and continue kind of the way we’re heading and see what happens and what goes forward,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center just after Discovery lifted off from a nearby launch pad.

On Feb. 14, the Obama administration announced its 2012 budget request, even though a federal budget for 2011 has yet to be passed. The government, including NASA, is operating under a stopgap measure called a continuing resolution, that keeps agencies funded at their 2010 levels.

Should a budget stalemate lead to a government shutdown, Gerstenmaier said  the shuttle should be able to carry out its mission as normal.

“We haven’t really done any in-detail contingency planning yet,” he said. “For the mission that’s flying we’d probably consider most of the folks mission-critical personnel and that’s pretty much transparent to us.”

When the federal government shut down in late 1995 and early 1996 over a budget standoff between the White House and Congress, NASA had one space shuttle in orbit and another undergoing preparation for launch.