NASA ‘A Lonely Place’ During US Government Shutdown

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NASA was supposed to be marking its 55th birthday this week, but the US space agency gave furlough notices, not birthday invitations, to nearly all of its 18,000 employees, and began fretting about future missions as funding dried up with the US government shutdown.

WASHINGTON, October 2 (by Karin Zeitvogel for RIA Novosti) – NASA was supposed to be marking its 55th birthday this week, but the US space agency gave furlough notices, not birthday invitations, to nearly all of its 18,000 employees, and began fretting about future missions as funding dried up with the US government shutdown.

One of the select few who did not get a furlough notice, Mike Trenchard of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said on National Public Radio (NPR) that the shutdown left him feeling “frustrated with Congress” even though he was “one of the lucky ones that’s going to continue to work.”

But, he added, “Most of my colleagues won’t be there, so it’s going to be kind of a lonely place.”

“NASA reacted to the shutdown with a broad brush when it came to furloughs,” a NASA engineer who was furloughed and asked not to be identified, told RIA Novosti on Wednesday.

“Just about everyone, 97 percent of people, were considered non-essential and were furloughed,” he said.

Only NASA personnel who are working on “on-orbit assets, or something that’s up there that could be damaged” were told they could come into work and pick up a paycheck during the shutdown, the engineer said.

“The mission I work hasn’t launched yet – it’s supposed to launch in February – so it’s not in space and in danger of being damaged,” he said.

“So on Tuesday, when the shutdown happened, we were given four hours to safely conduct an ‘orderly shutdown’ – in other words, we were able to go in and set up our email to auto-respond, our voicemails to tell everyone that we were furloughed, and to ‘safe’ the labs and clean room and shops, ‘safe’ the spacecraft, which is built and waiting for launch,” he said from his home, where he is spending time working on his basement.

On the newly created @FurloughedNASA Twitter feed, one tweet talked about launching rockets using giant slingshots.

NASA’s mission control in Houston is still open, since it supports the crew on the International Space Station, but the shutdown could imperil the next NASA trip to Mars, the $650 million Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), which is scheduled to launch on Nov. 18.

NASA said it has shut down MAVEN operations, but was still working toward a launch next month or in early December, when the launch window closes on Dec. 7.

If a prolonged government shutdown forces NASA to scrap the launch, the next window doesn’t open until early 2016, and the 26 month delay “would cost NASA’s Planetary Science Division tens of millions of dollars it cannot afford,” said Planetary Society blogger Casey Dreier.

Other NASA missions, including the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been probing the Red Planet for the past 14 months, looking for signs that life might have existed there, have so far not been affected by the shutdown.

Guy Webster, a spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the Curiosity project, explained to RIA Novosti that, “Because the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is operated by the California Institute of Technology as a contractor, JPL employees are reporting to work as usual, and Mars rover operations are continuing… this week,” including driving and the use of science instruments.

“Any changes to this status will be assessed on a week by week basis as events unfold,” Webster said in an email.

Webster said there are more countries than just the United States involved in the Mars rover mission – 13, to be precise, including Russia -- “and US federal employees are actually a minority on the team."

Curiosity’s Twitter feed was down, though, as was the feed of all NASA missions, something that saddened space buffs and left them hankering for the days before the shutdown.

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