Government Shutdown Would Leave All but 500 NASA Workers Idle

The U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol (Image credit: Office of the Clerk, U.S. Capitol)

WASHINGTON — All but about 500 of NASA’s 19,000 civil servants would be furloughed if the Congress and White House fail to reach a deal to keep the federal government operating beyond April 8.

Among the employees who would not be allowed to work are those preparing the space shuttle Endeavour for its scheduled April 29 launch.

The NASA Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston would continue to operate; civil servants and contractors there are responsible for maintaining the safety of the International Space Station and its six occupants.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, however, would close if a shutdown occurs, temporarily halting preparations for Endeavour’s STS-134 mission to the space station.

While a lengthy shutdown would delay Endeavour’s liftoff, NASA officials said April 8 that the program could absorb a brief shutdown and still launch April 29. Not including weekends, the schedule has 9 days of built-in margin, or slack, to accommodate unforeseen setbacks.

NASA sends out notices

The U.S. space agency outlined its contingency plan for a government shutdown in an April 7 memo to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  [What Happens During a Government Shutdown?]

NASA notified about 500 employees by email April 7 that their services are considered essential and they will be exempt from furlough — excepted, in government parlance — if the budget impasse forces a shutdown.

The bulk of the excepted employees are involved in space station operations. Other excepted employees are those needed to keep dozens of in-orbit satellites flying, but not those working on satellites still in development.

"[I]f a satellite mission is in the operations phase, we will maintain operations that are essential to ensure the safety of that satellite and the data received from it," the NASA memo to OMB reads. "However, if a satellite mission has not yet been launched, work will generally cease on that project."

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told Space News that furloughs would apply to NASA civil servants managing development of planetary probes whose launch windows open for a short period every couple of years. But contractors, he said, are largely free to continue working during a shutdown.

Space missions in pipeline

NASA has two planetary spacecraft slated to launch this year: a Jupiter orbiter called Juno and the Mars Science Laboratory rover mission.

Work on both projects would continue in the event of the shutdown because the spacecraft are being built and tested primarily by NASA contractors, namely Lockheed Martin and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is not a government facility but rather, a NASA-funded research center.

Because JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology, its employees are NASA contractors, not civil servants; they would be expected to work through a shutdown, JPL spokeswoman Jane Platt said April 8. "We will keep working," she said.

"Contractors may continue to perform under contracts for work obligated prior to the shutdown, provided performance does not require the use of closed NASA facilities or other government support that would be funded by a lapsed appropriation," Jacobs said April 8. "Work on certain missions in development may continue if performance does not require the use of NASA civil servant or technical resources or other government support. If contract work on these projects reaches a point at which civil servant participation becomes necessary, contractors will be instructed to suspend that activity.”

Juno, which is slated to launch in early August, was shipped from the Lockheed Martin Space Systems factory in Denver April 8 en route to the Kennedy Space Center. The Mars Science Laboratory, being built and tested at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., is slated to launch in November.

While work would continue unabated at JPL, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. — the agency’s other major spacecraft development facility — would largely shut down, Goddard spokesman Mark Hess told Space News. Spacecraft being built or managed by Goddard include the James Webb Space Telescope, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission and multiple weather satellites.

Roughly two-thirds of the 9,000 workers at Goddard are contractors, most of whom would not be permitted on campus unless they are involved in an exempted activity, such ensuring the safety or security of facilities, or flying satellites. 

Hess said contractors will learn their status from their employers.

Some NASA facilities to stay open

While most NASA-owned facilities would be closed during a shutdown, safety considerations would allow some on-site satellite work and other activities to continue on a case-by-case basis.

"As with the Shuttle, the extent of support necessary and the time needed to safely cease project activities will depend on whether any of the activities are of a hazardous nature (e.g., parts of the satellite may need to be cooled)," NASA told the OMB.

Johnson Space Center has the greatest number of excepted civil servants, with some 230 cleared to work during a shutdown, according to NASA. Kennedy, meanwhile, would be maintained by 38 civil servants and an unspecified number of contractors.

At Goddard, only 90 of the center's more than 3,000 civil servants would be allowed to work. NASA's Glenn Research in Cleveland, which does not operate any satellites, would have just six civil servants on site during a shutdown. A similar number would be cleared to work at Stennis Space Center, NASA's sprawling propulsion testing facility in Mississippi.

Congress has been funding the federal government since October with short-term spending plans called continuing resolutions, the most recent of which expires at midnight April 8.

This article was provided by Space News, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry. managing editor Tariq Malik contributed from New York.

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.