Government shutdown could delay NASA space science mission

Last year’s government shutdown, which ended more than four months ago, now seems like a distant memory, particularly now that Congress has found ways to work more cooperatively on issues like the fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill and debt limit increase. But while the shutdown might now seem like a bizarre fever dream to many, it could be a lasting nightmare for one NASA mission.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, a set of four identical spacecraft designed to study plasma phenomena in the Earth’s magnetosphere, has a “launch readiness date” of this October, and an “agency baseline commitment” to launch next March. However, NASA Goddard director Chris Scolese said Tuesday that the actual launch date for the mission is now uncertain, Space News reported. Work on the mission at Goddard stopped during the shutdown that lasted for more than half of October, and, as a result, the mission lost its place in the launch queue with United Launch Alliance.

Scolese said he was sure the spacecraft would not launch this year, and, in a worst-case scenario, would have to wait until 2016. However, he said it may be possible to find a launch window for MMS during 2015 if another mission planned during that time experiences delays, opening up room on ULA’s launch manifest.

That delay is more serious than what NASA reported shortly after the shutdown ended. In a briefing to the Space Studies Board in early November, Marc Allen of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said that the shutdown had delayed MMS by about a month, but that the spacecraft were “still within the launch window” despite that delay.

However, a delay is hardly the worst thing the MMS mission has had to worry about recently. In November, one of the four spacecraft was being trucked from Goddard to the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington for testing when an environmental control unit on the truck caught fire. The spacecraft was not damaged in the fire, although the truck sustained $50,000 in damage.

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