One of the most widely-noted impacts of the government shutdown on NASA has been that the vast majority of its employees—about 97 percent—are furloughed. Despite some reports claiming that NASA is the hardest-hit federal agency, at least one has furloughed a larger percentage of its workforce: 99 percent of the NSF’s employees are furloughed, according to Government Executive.
Beyond that, though, many are worried about the effect the shutdown has on NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. The spacecraft was being prepared for a November 18 launch when the government shut down, suspending that work since it is not strictly deemed essential. The problem for MAVEN is that it has a narrow launch window: if it does not launch by December 7, it will have to wait until the next Mars launch window opens in early 2016. (There may be some flexibility in that December 7 deadline, but only on the order of days.)
“MAVEN is shut down right now, which means that civil servants and work at government facilities is undergoing an orderly shutdown,” a project spokesperson at the University of Colorado emailed yesterday. (Those working at non-government sites that have funding available can continue work, but that’s little help for spacecraft preparations themselves.) “We’ll turn back on when told that we can. We have some margin days built into our schedule, and the team is absolutely committed to launching at this opportunity.”
The delay has also attracted the attention of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), whose office emailed a press release about the mission’s potential delay yesterday:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The economic woes created by the government shutdown are also grounding the nation’s space agency and even threatening an unmanned mission to Mars, a former astronaut and U.S. senator says.
In expressing concern about the far-reaching effects of the two-day-old shutdown, U.S. Bill Nelson (D-FL) today cited reports that there is only a narrow window ending mid-December for the planned launch of the unmanned MAVEN spacecraft. Today, Nelson talked with committee staff about the possibility of an exemption. If the schedule is thrown off beyond that because of the shutdown, then it could be 2016 before another launch window.
“A handful of extremist lawmakers are starting to do an awful lot of damage, from the interruption of vital government services to a reduction in anti-terrorism intelligence gathering to the grounding of NASA,” Nelson said. “Their behavior is irresponsible and reckless.”
The Florida Democrat on the Senate floor yesterday decried the fact that more than 97 percent of the space agency’s civilian workforce is being furloughed. Nelson is chairman of a Senate subcommittee overseeing NASA and he flew aboard the space shuttle in 1986 as a member of Congress.
He recently passed the plan for NASA that he coauthored and that involves NASA building a spacecraft to travel to deep space after being launched aboard a new monster rocket.
Regarding that reference to a statement on the Senate floor, Nelson did mention NASA in a floor speech on Tuesday, but only in passing, according to the Congressional Record: “Take, for example, NASA. NASA had to furlough 97 percent of its civilian workers in the space program.”
Update 6:20 pm: MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky announced late Thursday that MAVEN has been cleared to resume launch preparations. The reason: the spacecraft, in addition to its science mission, will also be used as a communications relay for current and future NASA landers. “Launching MAVEN in 2013 protects the existing assets that are at Mars today,” he writes, hence meeting the requirements to continue launch preparations during the government shutdown. Those launch preparations have already resumed, he said, and the project will know in the next few days if they need to make any schedule adjustments.