Congress, NASA, Other

Shutdown update: hearings, closures, and non-closures

The Senate Commerce Committee, whose oversight includes NASA, is holding a hearing Friday at 1 pm EDT titled “The Impacts of the Government Shutdown on Our Economic Security”. Among the scheduled witnesses for the hearing are Marion Blakey, the president and CEO of the Aerospace States Association; and Alan Leshner, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, best known as the publisher of the journal Science.

One organization has already looked at the economic impact of NASA-related elements of the government shutdown. The Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership (BAHEP) issued a white paper this week warning of serious and growing effects of the shutdown on Houston economy. “Indeed, the situation is dire,” the BAHEP document concluded. It found that, in addition to the civil service employee furloughs, 20% of 11,000 contractors are currently laid off, a number BAHEP estimates will grow to 60% by mid-month and 90% by November 1 if the shutdown continues. “For the NASA community, the shutdown price is quite high. The impact to the business community will be irreversible.”

Outside of NASA, the effects of the shutdown continue. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) is making plans to close down telescopes it runs at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and furlough employees if the shutdown is still in effect at the end of next week. NOAO facilities in Chile will remain open, according to Nature, because of Chilean laws that forbid involuntary unpaid leave. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) says that other telescopes and facilities it manages, including the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Gemini Observatory, should remain operational at least through the end of the month.

In a bit of good news, though, one radio telescope that previously was expected to furlough employees by the middle of this month now plans to remain open. In a statement posted on its website, Arecibo Observatory director Robert Kerr said that although the situation is “difficult, and confused,” the telescope and its visitor center would remain open during the shutdown; a 50th anniversary symposium planned for late October remains on as well. Last week, Kerr said in a Washington press conference that the observatory would have to furlough its staff by the middle of the month because of a lack of funds due to the shutdown.

21 comments to Shutdown update: hearings, closures, and non-closures


    There was some NASA dweeb on CNN Friday night expressing support for the shutdown. With that kind of poor judgment on display, furloughing him permanently is an idea management might just entertain.

  • Nom de plume

    All this concern about civil servants is laughable, given that they will receive back pay. Although the BAHEP white paper quote expresses concern about the civil servants, it is more about the impact to the economy in the Houston area. It is the contractor employees that are not working that are taking the financial hit of the shut down.

    My finances are squared away, so I can take the hit, but pity those who live pay check to pay check, or those companies whose core business is government support services, or provide supplies and materials.

    My point is that NASA needs to be consistent and fair about how it applies the shutdown guidance. Who works or not seems to be inconsistent from NASA Center to NASA Center. Guidance from the NASA at KSC seems “conservative” with very few working. But JSC? Maybe they think their work is too important or they’re taking the DOD approach, so it seems business as usual. Maybe after all this is over, there will be a reckoning, with each Center having to explain line by line the expenditure that occurred during shut down and justify it. Tsk tsk & finger waving but I doubt there will be spankings for misinterpreting what is essential or important. Or maybe KSC is being too conservative in its interpretation?

    • Hiram

      Eh, NASA centers that specialize in human spaceflight are used to “shutdowns” (or shut-ups, I suppose). Get over it. But this shutdown is a protest about the government spending too much, and these NASA folks represent what the government is spending money on. In my view, rather few people at JSC are actually working, except those responsible for ISS in particular. Is that not your assessment?

      Of course, unlike national parks and monuments, which the nation cannot endure being without, NASA is pretty expendable. In the first case, the nation is invited to walk around some rocks, and in the other, the nation is trying to fling people at some rocks.

      What is somewhat comical about the shutdown is that although it is a protest about the government spending too much, the backpay will ensure that the government spends the same amount as it used to. The “protest” will be expressed in work not getting done, rather than money not being handed over, and the taxpayer will be funding honey-do projects in households across the nation.

      • common sense

        It actually is a lot worse than that. Yes money will be paid, at least to the civil servants.

        However. What is the cost of shutting down and reopening all those facilities? Say for example the supercomputers running week long simulations that had to be shut down in a hurry – and then restarted. Unless they were excepted which I hardly see why they would. But all those nice labs that need 24 hr attention. The catch up with lost business. And on and on.

        I would love to know what those idiots who claim that they do that for saving money think about all the actual waste. On a law that was democratically voted on and passed.

        Hey I don’t like the menu at the cafeteria. How about we shut down the darn cafeteria until the menu is properly fixed to accommodate *my* taste?!??!

      • Nom de plume

        Rather few people working at JSC? Only those JSC personnel currently working are required to support ISS? So, if the quote is accurate: “in addition to the civil service employee furloughs, 20% of 11,000 contractors are currently laid off, a number BAHEP estimates will grow to 60% by mid-month and 90% by November 1 if the shutdown continues.” I assumed that the author was speaking about JSC, though I doubt “lay off” is the correct term to use. Am I misinterpreting what was said, that 80% or about 8800 contractors are working at JSC, all required to support ISS? Unbelievable, so maybe were not getting correct information.

        • mike shupp

          My understanding of things: Most NASA employees, those not involved in a handful of high-priority activities, are furloughed. Contractors on those projects are not required to terminate or furlough their personnel, but it isn’t guaranteed that the government will ever pay for those employee’s time. Also, contractor personnel aren’t allowed on Federal facilities while they are shutdown. So — if you’re Lockheed Martin or whatever and you want to keep your headcount up and you have spare offices to set those unneeded employees in and you’re willing to pay them totally from corporate firms, feel free!

          Over time, most folks watching this expect contractors to cut their staffing, but it’s not quite a mechanical process.

          • Hiram

            That’s exactly right. Most NASA-managed contractor activities are NOT on-site at a NASA center. As a result, the contractor can chose to continue them. But the centers are formally closed. If you are a contractor, and your task is based at the center, and isn’t a “high priority activity”, you’re on stay-cation.

            But I will correct myself and acknowledge that while civil service people are likely to get back pay for work they weren’t allowed to do, the same is not necessarily the case for contractors. In that case, the government may indeed end up spending less, and the savings accrued will be taken from contractor employees who actually thought they had a job.

  • Nom de plume

    So, are these telescopes operated by civil servants or contractors? Are they continuing to make observations and do science, or are they just doing minimum maintenance mode on the very expensive hardware? Are US funds being used to keep the Arecibo Visitors Center open? And the 50th anniversary celebration? Seems to be more double standard or misinterpretation of the shutdown guidance.

    • Fred Willett

      Are US funds being used to keep the Arecibo Visitors Center open?
      The telescope (and visitors centre) is operated by SRI International, USRA and UMET, under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (from Wikipedia)
      Ultimately the money comes from the government and it may run out of money and have to shut down, but not yet.
      It’s the difference between a government department (NASA) and a non government body funded by the govt (NSF).

  • Fred Willett

    this shutdown is a protest about the government spending too much
    I live in Australia and even I know it’s not that simple.

    • Nom de plume

      Not simple, but it is the excuse that some right-wingers use to fight progressive policies and try to reduce the size of government. Representative Peter King, Republican NY, said “We can’t allow a small minority of a party to hijack it and, again, cause catastrophic problems, not just for our party, that’s our problem, but for the country. It’s 800,000 people out of work because of 30 or 40 people.” He’s oversimplified it, too.

      Too much time on my hands. Won’t ya’ll be happy when the shut down ends and I go back to work?

  • amightywind

    “The Impacts of the Government Shutdown on Our Economic Security”.

    The greatest threat to our economic security is a corrupt and rapacious government whose rate of spending exceeds the growth in GDP by 2X. Last year the gobment borrowed over $1 trillion. The growth in GDP was about $1/2 billion. Fight fiercely GOP! I regret that the congress guaranteed back wages for furloughed employees, or else the GOP would have more leverage.


    Well, NBC’s SNL opened their show lampooning NASA and the shutdown with a skit based on that film, ‘Gravity’– almost as scathing as ‘Newt Gingrich- Moon President’ was two years ago. Perhaps the most wicked barb was the crack about the Ukraine governmentr being more stable– as the Russian space program is still flying high.

    So this week, NASA made the headlines for being closed and laughed at; was depicted in a disaster film about shuttle which in reality hasn’t flown in years- and for the death of one of the Original Seven. America’s space program is now a punchline.

    • Hiram

      “Perhaps the most wicked barb was the crack about the Ukraine governmentr being more stable– as the Russian space program is still flying high.”

      The Russian space program is still flying high? Really? I guess that’s related to the fact that just the other day the head of the Russian Space Agency was thrown out on his rear, and that Roskosmos is likely to be split in two halves. It would seem that you have more confidence in the Russian space agency than the Russian government does!

      As to the death of one of the Original Seven being symbolic of the American space program being a punchline, what it really symbolizes is that the American space program doesn’t look anything like it did with the Original Seven. With all due respect to the Original Seven, I firmly believe that preservation of that view, of what it takes to be a credible space effort, after fifty years, is in no ones interest.

      • DCSCA

        “The Russian space program is still flying high? Really?” snipes Hiram.

        Yes, really. Soyuz is still operational. Been flying for decades. Shuttle is not.

        • Hiram

          “Soyuz is still operational. Been flying for decades. Shuttle is not.”

          Well, as you say, Soyuz has been been flying for decades. The main part of Soyuz is 1960s generation, though the latest models have been outfitted with modern avionics. If Shuttle were still working, it would be with upgraded 1970s technologies. “Operational” doesn’t really mean “flying high” to me. If I want to go downtown, I could “ride high” on a horse. Horses are wonderfully “operational”, especially if you’re nice to them. One will always get me downtown. But, as for Soyuz, their capabilities are really quite limited.

          At least we aspire to “ride high”. What are the Russians building that will offer access to deep space?

  • Hiram


    “But, like NASA’s Orion capsule, the New-Generation Advanced Manned Transportation Spacecraft will do nothing to reduce the cost of access to space, nor will provide new capabilities beyond those which the US and Soviet Union possessed in the 1960′s.”

    As to the Russian SLS, sounds like they are expected to offer a formal competition to develop a rocket which might be built. Horrors! But it does make for good Powerpoint and, at least unlike SLS, the Yenesi-5 is not now costing them a large fraction of their space development budget. That’s because they aren’t building it. Pretty smart, no?

    So they’re not copying the U.S., but they’re probably smarter than the U.S. Maybe we should call that “riding high”?

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