Fifty years ago, NASA was triumphant after sending the first humans around the Moon. John F. Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was within reach. Launches were scheduled every few months. Apollo 9 in March. Apollo 10 in May. Apollo 11 in July. The future seemed limitless.
Today NASA sits idle, the vast majority of its workforce sent home, the victim of the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history.
The partial government shutdown that shuttered NASA has lurched into its 28th day with no end in sight. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has passed multiple bills to reopen the government, all lacking funding for the President's border wall. The Republican majority controlling the Senate has refused to consider a single bill unless it has the backing of the President. Negotiations are stalled.
The longer the shutdown, the greater its consequences. From our wheelhouse in space science and exploration, public employees are missing scientific conferences, are losing data collection opportunities, and are facing ever-increasing financial pressure from missed paychecks. Celestial mechanics do not take into account political stalemates; the brief launch opportunities to Mars do not take into account time for shutdowns. Scientists are out of action and cannot provide support for active missions.
Among those furloughed are Jon Jenkins, a science lead for the newly-launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission. In an email, he described some of the practical impacts of the shutdown on the mission:
We have been unable to process the data that continue to be collected and downloaded from the spacecraft and have a deadline at the end of the month to release the third and fourth months of data...we are falling way behind in processing the two new monthly data sets. This shutdown is threatening to delay and diminish the science return from this NASA mission.
We may not be able to complete all the development we had scoped out and this will result in noisier light curves and thus, fewer small, rocky planets from TESS. There will be impacts to other astrophysics as well.
Mark Marley, another furloughed scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, wrote to me about some of the impact on him and non-public sector scientists:
I have collaborators at multiple universities all of whom need things from me that I can't provide...we were planning on releasing a very large dataset of our theoretical models and that work has been halted. So in my case, just stopping the work of one government scientist has impacted the work of about a dozen collaborators at universities, including graduate students and postdocs who need to get papers out in order to move on with their careers.
If you think of all the ripples from all of the scientists that are spreading out to the whole community, the impact from the shutdown is far bigger than it might first appear.
Beyond individual stories of disrupted data sets and upset collaborations, there is a bigger threat to the scientific workforce. Despair is setting in as scientists, young and old, feel demoralized, undervalued, and uncertain about careers subject to a political system that is increasingly unpredictable.
As an illustration, the contractor that manages NASA's highly competitive postdoctoral program—which provides salaries for early-career scientists fresh out of graduate school—announced yesterday that it has run out of NASA money to sustain its grant recipients. Fortunately, the contractor decided to use its own resources to pay advances to postdocs through February, with the assumption that NASA will pay them back. After February, their future is uncertain. Regardless, scientists just starting their careers are facing financial insecurity after winning some of the most prestigious grants in the field. Some are reconsidering their careers in science.
Dr. Pamela Denkins, furloughed from NASA's Johnson Space Center, wrote to share this concern:
I am an older employee and after going through the threat of a shutdown every year of my career, I have learned to prepare for such occurrences. However, for younger Civil Servants who are in the midst of caring for themselves and/or young families, covering mortgages, and repaying school loans, this is not only a significant financial imposition, it is also confusing and emotionally stressful. Our leaders are heartless.
Private contractors are also starting to feel the consequences. Most contractors are have been paid in advance of their work, but as the shutdown lengthens, that funding will run out. Others are struggling with unpaid invoices and uncertain funding scenarios.
Thousands of smaller contractors that depend on NASA or other government business to make payroll are also suffering. Lacking the assets or access to credit enjoyed by large companies, they must make painful and immediate decisions to sustain themselves financially. Tethers Unlimited, a small aerospace business based in Bothell, WA was forced to lay off 20% of its workforce due to invoices left unpaid by furloughed NASA staff.
It's worth repeating that NASA and every other federal science agency currently impacted by this shutdown has nothing to do with the political debate at hand. Yet the progress of science in the United States is suffering because of it. Hundreds of thousands of people face financial duress from bills, mortgage payments, student loans, child care, or health care costs that do not wait for politics. If the shutdown continues, the scientific, institutional, workforce, and human costs will increasingly mount.
This is no way to run a space program. As if we needed a reminder of this unique failure of our budgetary system, the following political cartoon surfaced on Weibo, one of China's most popular social media sites:
The caption reads, "here there's never a shutdown."