NASA’s operations reduced to essential mission support
• Maven launch at risk of a 3-year delay
• Caltech funded NASA JPL stays open but not sure for how long
• No Twitter warning in case of asteroid approach


Just one day after Karen Nyberg had helped Luca Parmitano connect the second private spacecraft ever to the International Space Station using an advanced robotic arm and barely a week after Michael Hopkins had unpacked his space luggage after a tiring Soyuz journey, the American astronauts aboard the International Space Station were in for some disconcerting news – NASA was going to shut down.

As hard to believe as it might have sounded, the inconceivable came true as the US Congress failed to reach an agreement on the fiscal budget starting on October 1, throwing the country into insecurity.

97% of NASA’s 18,000 employees were forced to take unpaid leave. Even the IT experts securing the flawless operations of NASA’s websites, usually featuring abundant content, were sent home, shutting the websites down before locking their offices, leaving a simple message for potential visitors:

“Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.”

The Cygnus cargo spacecraft is just a few feet away from the International Space Station's Canadarm2 (Credits: NASA).

One day after the successful docking of Cygnus, the astronauts received some grim news (Credits: NASA).

The agency apologized on Twitter for not tweeting any possible warning about approaching asteroids and comets for the duration of the shut-down. Nevertheless, it later reassured the public that its partnering astronomers and observatories will keep watching the sky.

Calculations and data analysis were stopped without question, frequently resulting in loss of work various teams had spent weeks developing.

According to the Astronomy Magazine, employees of NASA centers had to empty all liquid nitrogen tanks, watching on the brink of depression as the plumes of vapor fizzled out.

Only the indispensable operations were allowed to remain – in the first place, of course, the basic support of the International Space Station. Apart from the two astronauts watching the mess from above, most of the 549 workers who have not been furloughed are working in the Johnson Space Center to secure ISS operations.

Reprieve for JPL

The Los Angeles-based JPL Laboratory has been partly spared due to the financial contribution of the California Institute of Technology to its operations. The JPL teams are now the only ones keeping an eye on several missions – Curiosity, the Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer (recently reactivated to look for near-Earth asteroids, including those suitable for possible retrieval), and the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, twin Earth-observing satellites examining Earth’s gravitational field. The JPL teams also keep listening to infrequent signals from Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. All work is limited to the mere essentials.

Curiosity has not been left alone (Credits: NASA).

Curiosity has not been left alone (Credits: NASA).

However, as the center’s spokeswoman Veronica McGregor said, no one knows how long they will be able to keep going if the crisis is not resolved. Despite the center’s website still being online, all social media communication has ceased.
Several other services carried out by contractors with independent funding have been reported to remain open, including the visitor center at Kennedy Space Center.

MAVEN Mission at Risk

Rather disturbing information was revealed yesterday by The Planetary Society. If the budget crisis is not resolved in due time, preparations for the launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) spacecraft might be disrupted.

“A shutdown could delay the pre-launch processing currently under way with a possible impact to the scheduled 18 November launch date,” Dwayne Brown, NASA’s senior public affairs officer, told The Planetary Society.

Even though the launch window covers several weeks, if missed, it would result in Maven’s launch being rescheduled for no earlier than 2016, due to the orbital positions of Earth and Mars, which have critical impact on the flight duration, cost, and trajectory.

Next launch window for the MAVEN Martian probe will open in 2016

The next launch window for the MAVEN Martian probe will open in 2016 (Credits: NASA).

Maven is the second mission selected for NASA’s Mars Scout program, an initiative for smaller, low-cost missions led by a principal investigator. The probe is designed to carry out critical measurements of the Martian atmosphere to help understand dramatic climate change on the red planet over its history.

It Happened Before

This is not the first time NASA has been forced to shut down. In November 1995, President Clinton and congressional Republicans — led by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich — couldn’t come to an agreement in time. A shutdown ensued right in the middle of the space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-74 mission to Russia’s Mir space station.

NASA employees considered essential to that mission stayed on. But many other workers were furloughed, including NASA’s public affairs office.

Back then, it took three weeks for the Congress to resolve the situation.

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