Congress, NASA

Senator raises concern shutdown will delay MAVEN (update: it’s saved)

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.

34 comments to Senator raises concern shutdown will delay MAVEN (update: it’s saved)

  • Hiram

    As I’m sure will be pointed out by our scientific denialists, the atmosphere of Mars will still be there in two years. But what Nelson isn’t saying, which is where the rub is, is that the MAVEN marching army will need to be supported for another two years to keep the project viable, and the project will end up costing a lot more. The FY13 budget line for MAVEN is $150M, so let’s say that hundreds of millions will be goose stepped into oblivion.

    Not that the shutdowners actively care about wasting money. That’s happening all over the place. I just wish that Nelson would frame the argument in the dollars and cents that the shutdowners claim to be responsive to. But, of course, we can take a few hundred million from Nelson’s “monster rocket” and kick the can down the road.

    • amightywind

      Everyone has their sacred cow. The shutdown has consequences, no doubt. But you should not put myopic focus on today’s inconvenience. The greater good is served by finally getting the nation’s finances in order. Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish.

      • Coastal Ron

        amightywind said:

        The greater good is served by finally getting the nation’s finances in order.

        If only that was the case, but it isn’t. The Tea Party even agrees that they really don’t know why it is they shut down the government, other than for personal reasons. For instance, Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), a Tea Party member said:

        “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

        The Tea Party are spoiled children crying for the sake of getting attention. And you think such behavior should be rewarded?

        Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish.

        Having no plan is foolish, no matter what the circumstances, that’s Politics 101. There are people dying because of this government shutdown, and these immature politicians don’t care.

        MAVEN is just one small example of where the shutdown will INCREASE costs, and it sets a bad example for future politicians of ANY party. Let’ see how you like this type of behavior when it’s a Republican President and the Democrats try something similar in the name of “the people’s will”.

        • Glenn

          That is your point of view.
          Mine is that the shutdown is due to a president that wants to impose to the nation his Obamacare which the majority of the american people don’t want.
          He just have to respect the will of the people and the shutdwon will be over.

          • Guest

            Of course you can provide us with the source of your ‘majority’ figures, right? Because I seem to recall the bill became law. And you speak for this unsubstantiated majority, right? I think that’s called authoritarianism.

          • Hiram

            “…which the majority of the american people don’t want”

            I guess that’s where polls trump elections. Interesting concept! If you place that much faith in the polls, Congress, and particularly the GOP part, should be thrown out on their rears. They’re not polling too well, you know. They just have to respect the “will of the people” as they gather up their belongings and vacate their offices.

            • Michael Kent

              “I guess that’s where polls trump elections.”

              We’ve had an election here on ObamaCare. Twice. It lost by a 2-1 margin each time.

              In addition, 1 million people marched on the Washington Mall to try to prevent its passage.

              Massachusetts elected a Republican to Ted Kennedy’s seat to be the 40th vote against ObamaCare.

              28 states sued the federal government to try to prevent its implementation.

              ObamaCare is probably the most unpopular law since the Fugitive Slave Act.

              If you like it, fine, but you have no right to impose it on the rest of us.

              But let’s put ObamaCare aside for a moment. About 95% of federal spending — including NASA (to be on topic) — is acceptable to both sides. So they could pass that 95% and then compromise on the remaining 5%. They could, except the Senate and the White House have said “No deal.” They either get 100% of what they want, or no one gets anything.

              The shutdown would end tomorrow if the Senate and the president were willing to compromise.

              • Jeff Foust

                A reminder to all that discussion of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare is off topic for this blog. Thank you for your cooperation in keeping comments focused on space policy topics.

          • Mader

            “Mine is that the shutdown is due to a president that wants to impose to the nation his Obamacare which the majority of the american people don’t want.”
            Opposition to Obamacare itself is 47% (versus 45% supporting) – difference within statistical error. This does not matter today, as it is law already, and winning election second time (with health reform as central point during elections) by Obama only validates it.

            “He just have to respect the will of the people”
            72% of people oppose shutting down the government to cut off funding the health care law. There you go, you have your “will of people”. Looks like Republicans does not respect it very much. Anyone surprised?

  • James

    “Their behavior is irresponsible and reckless.”

    Indeed, the behavior of Congress & the White House is irresponsible and reckless, when it comes to ignoring the run away spending that is American Entitlement Programs (pick your fave…w Obamacare just the flavor of the month). Its this part of the budget, not the discretionary part, where NASA lives, that our elected officials choose to ignore.

    If there was an ounce of real leadership anywhere in Washington, there would be commensurate confidence that a solution to run away “Entitlement Programs” could be reached w/o holding the other side of the isle hostage (both sides play this dysfunctional game).

    Alas, there is no real leadership; so extortion, blackmail, manipulation, make the other side look bad – the tools of children – are used instead.

    And what we get instead is America killing debt; along with a dysfunctional NASA (especially human space flight) that will eventually wither away and die – out of mercy for all who work in support of NASA.

    America’s debt, and policy of deficits, sure is exceptional!

  • Guest

    American Entitlement Programs

    Which includes ‘the military’ and ‘NASA’. Fully half of it is ‘the military’.

    • Hiram

      Not true. VA benefits are one of the entitlement programs, but otherwise not “the military”. Not NASA either, which is a non-defense discretionary allocation. Whatcha smokin’?

      • Guest

        It’s called ‘debt’. It’s measured in ‘dollars’. It is the result of uncontrolled military spending. Get a grip.

        • RockyMtnSpace

          It’s out of control entitlement spending which dwarfs all discretionary spending, inclusive of military and NASA. Do some research.

        • Hiram

          You called “entitlement spending” what military and NASA expenditures are part of. It’s not. Glad you understand. You’re entitled to a correction, and this entitlement is free!

          • Guest

            No I didn’t, but I consider it to be an ‘entitlement’ when the nation is broke.

            It is well known that the military slice of the pie is roughly equal to Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, Discretionary, and Other. They are equal slices of the pie, so to claim that ‘entitlements’, whatever that is, represents something really bad or extra special compared to ‘Military’ is nonsense. You can continue to cling to your delusions and vanity if you wish.

            • Hiram

              “It” was “American Entitlement Programs”. (Capitalized, no less.) You said the military and NASA were part of that. You were wrong.

              You can consider anything to be an “entitlement” when the nation is broke. But that’s not what everyone else considers it. I can consider a rocket launcher to be a popsicle, even though everyone else doesn’t. If you want to invent your own words, please do it in your Kindergarten classroom.

              You can cling to your word inventions if you wish. But don’t bother the rest of us with them.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    Why wasn’t MAVEN excepted from the shutdown in the first place? It’s not like the advent of a new federal fiscal year is a moving target. It’s always Oct. 1. NASA HQ has had months to review which projects should shut down and which should not. Common sense should tell NASA HQ to prioritize missions close to launch around Oct. 1 in those reviews. It’s ridiculous that it has taken until two days after the shutdown to figure out MAVEN’s status. Has anyone been awake at NASA HQ in recent weeks? Bueller? Bueller?

    What a managerial joke…

    • Rob Miller

      Vindictiveness. NASA has a bulls eye on it. The organization is a source of American pride and success. See similar treatment of the Vets to understand this.

    • Hiram

      “Why wasn’t MAVEN excepted from the shutdown in the first place?”

      I think the answer is that, formally, cost savings do not comply with formal OMB regulations governing funding exceptions for government shutdowns. Such exceptions must

      – Provide for the national security, including the conduct of foreign relations essential to the national security or the safety of life and property.

      – Provide for benefit payments and the performance of contract obligations under no-year or multi-year or other funds remaining available for those purposes.

      – Conduct “essential activities” to the extent that they protect life and property.

      So quite frankly, MAVEN doesn’t fit. Those OMB regulations are actually pretty smart. Shutdowns are usually generated by funding issues, and making it possible to conserve money in a shutdown just incentivizes them. Why would OMB want to do that? OMB wants Congress to PAY for shutdowns. Has nothing to do with who’s awake at NASA HQ. They’re awake enough to read the rules.

      • Dark Blue Nine

        “They’re awake enough to read the rules.”

        I don’t think they were. Either MAVEN can be exempted under the OMB guidelines or not. This is a decision that should have been made weeks ago. It should not have taken until two days after the shutdown to wake up and realize that MAVEN is critical to protecting property at Mars.

        • Hiram

          No, MAVEN is not “critical” to protecting property on Mars. Mars surface assets have DTE capabilities, and while you sure aren’t going to be doing a lot of science operations DTE, you’re not going to lose the mission if you have to use it. So what MAVEN is protecting is their science value. It’s true that MRO and Odyssey, as Prox-1 relays, are beyond their design lifetime, but that’s already the case. If NASA wanted to protect the science value in those surface missions, it would have sent up a new orbital comm system long ago.

          By that definition of property protection, you could exempt a whole lot of stuff.

          I’ll admit that this is kind of squishy, but it seems clear to me a good reason why MAVEN exemption might have been considered non-compliant. For all we know, maybe NASA asked about MAVEN exemption, and was refused. Is it clear that didn’t happen?

        • Hiram

          Actually, it’s reported that the “emergency exemption” given to MAVEN doesn’t come from the OMB guidelines. It comes from the Anti-Deficiency Act of 1884, which seems a little odd. The ADA prohibits actions that would mandate expenditures on unappropriated funds. That’s why civil service employees aren’t allowed to even volunteer their work, because later on that work could possibly obligate federal expenditures in FY14. I guess that’s when they decide that, “Hey, I did that work, and I deserve compensation after all. No, I didn’t really mean I was going to work for no money!!” That is, there is no legal route to acknowledge volunteer activity. But it’s not entirely clear why that should exempt MAVEN efforts from shutdown suspension.

          Seems like if MAVEN didn’t launch, and you needed to park the Mars rovers because MRO and Odyssey failed, that wouldn’t obligate new money. But it’s possible that if this work isn’t done, then additional effort in FY2014 might be necessary to achieve MAVEN launch readiness. Can anyone provide some illumination here?

      • Mader

        Protip: shutdown does not even save any money in first place. It is just self-mutilation.

  • Fred Willett

    per update: It’s nice tp see some sanity shown and MAVEN work allowed to continue.

  • Rob Miller

    Common Sense. Where was Nelson’s concern for throwing away billions of dollars of investment when the President burned down the Constellation program?

    • Jim Nobles

      Rob said, “Where was Nelson’s concern for throwing away billions of dollars of investment when the President burned down the Constellation program?”

      I can’t speak for Senator Nelson, he’s not my Senator and I don’t like him that much anyway. But the Constellation program should have been “burned down” sooner than it was. It was a piece of dog crap of a program and continuing it would have been throwing more good money after bad.

      My only real regret about Constellation was that it was partially reborn as “SLS”. But it is still pouring good money after bad. If we want a super heavy-lifter right now we should put one out for bid to the private sector and see what kind of prices they quote us.

      • Coastal Ron

        Jim Nobles said:

        My only real regret about Constellation was that it was partially reborn as “SLS”.

        True. But as I recall the sentiment back then on Space Politics, overall we all thought that what happened was a win for Obama, a win for NASA, and a win for the commercial space industry.

        I will admit that it’s taken longer to cancel the SLS than I thought (or hoped), but since Congress has refused so far to fund any use for the SLS, it’s only a matter of time.

        If we want a super heavy-lifter right now we should put one out for bid to the private sector and see what kind of prices they quote us.

        Agreed. Which is why the SLS is so completely backward, because no one knows what the actual need is, so they are building a transportation system without any guidance from the “market” it’s supposed to serve. In the real world, companies that attempt to do that usually fail miserably, and I’ve seen nothing that indicates it won’t happen for this government effort.

      • Coastal Ron

        Aviation Week has an article about NASA mothballing the J-2X SLS engine after they finish testing on it, since “it will be years” before it will be needed.

        This is just the early indications that the SLS was never really needed, and that Congress has no intention of providing NASA enough money to use the SLS. The tipping point for the SLS program is probably not too far off.

    • Coastal Ron

      Rob Miller said:

      Where was Nelson’s concern for throwing away billions of dollars of investment when the President burned down the Constellation program?

      Nelson has been an oddity for Democrats, and for NASA. But your opinion about Obama and Constellation are even more of an oddity, and down right ignorant of the truth.

      Since you don’t seem to be an Obama supporter, let’s look at the cancellation of the Constellation program from the Republican perspective, and see what Republican’s at that time thought of Obama “burning down the Constellation program”.

      If you go back and look at the actual voting record for Republican’s on the cancellation of Constellation, the vast majority of Republican’s in the House from Alabama, Texas and Florida voted FOR the cancellation.

      So apparently, in a vote of solidarity with a Democrat President, Republican’s from very pro-NASA stated said that they agreed with Obama.

      What do you make of that?

      • Michael Kent

        “What do you make of that?”

        NASA is not usually a partisan issue, and Constellation was one messed up program.

        Opposition to commercial crew is not partisan either*. It’s a pork issue, something near and dear to members of both parties.

        *with the possible exception of one or two commenters here.

    • Vladislaw

      The President burned down the Constellation program? Can you show me the links on what congress did to stop him? I mean the republicans must have put up an enormous fight and the senate must have had 100 fillibusters to stop the president from burning down the contellation program. Would you happen to have the voting record on now many members of congress voted against the president to prevent the fire?

      • Generally overlooked in the rhetorical nonsense spewed by the Constellation huggers is that Constellation was a dog program — billions over budget, years behind schedule, and “lacking a sound business case” to quote the GAO.

        Oh, and let’s not forget that Ares I was being built to send crew to ISS — but would be funded by deorbiting ISS, therefore Ares I had no place to go and served no purpose.

        Clearly a program designed by a dysfunctional Congress. Obama deserved re-election just for proposing to kill Constellation. Congress morphed it into SLS to protect their pork, but technically speaking no President can “kill” a program. Only Congress can do that.

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