With the end of the government shutdown, things are starting to return to normal (at least in the pre-shutdown sense of “normal”) for NASA and the rest of the federal government. The agency has resumed regular operations under a continuing resolution (CR) passed Wednesday by Congress that keeps the government funded until January 15, 2014, at fiscal year 2013 levels. The CR, HR 2775, doesn’t contain any special policy provisions for NASA, but does allow NOAA to spend its funds at a rate “necessary to maintain the planned launch schedules for the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system.” That language is identical to what was in the original CR, H.J.Res.59, introduced in the House last month before getting wrapped up in a debate over the Affordable Care Act.
The end of the shutdown has also affected another policy issue that arose during it, the decision by NASA officials to block Chinese scientists from attending the Kepler Science Conference at NASA Ames Research Center. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that those scientists who were originally blocked from attending have received a letter from NASA that the original decision was overturned and that their “paperwork is being reviewed for clearance.” The end of the shutdown also allows the conference itself to proceed on schedule, starting November 4, conference organizers said Thursday.
And with the shutdown over, people can now pay attention to other space policy issues. In an op-ed in the Washington Times last week, Joshua Jacobs of the relatively new Conservative Future Project blamed NASA’s current problems primarily on Congress, in particular the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. “Imagine what could be done if resources being thrown into the furnace for the Space Launch System was repurposed for technology incubation, commercial projects, or heaven forbid, actual missions,” he writes. Jacobs, though, is critical of the Obama Administration as well for canceling the Constellation Program, saying the program was “fiercely lauded in the scientific and space community”—but also suffered from budget issues.
In another essay on the website PolicyMic last week, Christopher Blakeley says NASA’s decision to shelve the J-2X engine—planned for the upper stage of the SLS but not needed for its initial missions—after tests of it are completed next year is another sign of a flawed space program. Like Jacobs, he believes NASA should partner more with the private sector. “Space exploration can no longer be a contest to see who’s got the biggest rocket,” he writes. “Looking at the private space travel through companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic instead of creating rockets that can’t take us anywhere is a great place to start.”