Expert Voices

Houston, We Have a Problem — It's Washington (Op-Ed)

NASA's Meatball Logo
NASA's "meatball" logo. (Image credit: NASA)

Paul Shearon, formerly a Boeing engineer, was elected in the summer of 2018 as the president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. Across the nation, IFPTE represents 80,000 highly-skilled, workers in both the public and private sectors, including 8,000 scientists and technical workers at NASA. The union is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Shearon contributed this article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

"Houston, we have a problem." Remember back when NASA missions, such as Apollo 13, were scrubbed due to mechanical issues? Today, NASA's missions are being delayed and the space agency is being damaged for the long-term — not by equipment failure, but by the failure of our elected leaders to reach a budget agreement. On Dec. 22, 95 percent of NASA's scientists, technical workers and other employees were furloughed — for the third time in the past year.

The appropriation process is broken and has been broken for a while, but the White House is making a bad situation worse. The current shutdown is longer than the previous two combined. It's also different, because this lockout may be the straw that breaks the camel's back for the NASA workforce. [NASA's 10 Greatest Science Missions]

As the president of a union that represents 80,000 highly skilled professionals in the public and private sector, including 25,000 Boeing engineers and 8,000 rocket scientists and technical workers at NASA, I understand how much demand there is for professionals with advanced degrees in science and engineering. I also understand the frustration dedicated NASA scientists have when they're given two hours on Dec. 26 to remove their personal possessions from their labs and offices because after that the gates to their research center will be padlocked. I understand their frustration when not only will wages possibly remain stagnant after the first of the year because of President Trump’s recommended 2019 pay freeze through an executive order, a paycheck won't even come. Furthermore, when the President of the United States, the top administrator for federal workers, seemingly couldn't care less if government operations such as NASA are operating, I completely understand why some scientists, engineers and others with technical skills may seek employment elsewhere.

And make no mistake, the president is absolutely wrong with his claim that "many" federal workers support the shutdown and have told him to "stay out." I don't know where he gets his information. I have heard from only one member who supports the president's inaction. Most are extremely frustrated and view this as an act of ineptitude. Oh, and by the way, our membership includes significant numbers of Republicans and independents, as well as Democrats. The president seems to think all federal workers are of the opposing party. 

Paul Shearon, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. (Image credit: Paul Shearon)

As the head of the administrative branch of government, as the nation's top administrator, President Trump should be deeply concerned about the morale of his employees, the productivity of government agencies and the ability of the government to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Instead, he is literally tweeting the words "poor me" while holding dedicated professionals hostage, creating unnecessary stress and financial hardships for their families, undermining their work product and treating them as a chip on a giant poker table. [In Photos: President Donald Trump and NASA]

"You can't build something someone's never built before sitting on your ass doing nothing," Paul Greenberg, a research scientist and physicist at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and an active member of my union, recently told The Washington Post. "Everything just stops." 

He also told The Post that "retirement's looking more attractive all the time." Greenberg, who is working on a project funded by Homeland Security to build sensor packages that first responders and firefighters can wear to monitor their exposure to airborne substances, as well as a telescope to send data back from deep space, has spent 30 years at NASA. Younger scientists and engineers are also looking at the exit signs, and that should concern everyone who wants to see a vibrant space program.

Younger workers see NASA TV being mostly shut down during the furlough, the agency's website not being updated and no one keeping tabs on their projects. They feel devalued and expendable. They believe that they're being treated as poker chips in a dispute that should be settled by overhauling the budget process, debating a wall as part of an infrastructure spending package, or as part of a grand bargain on immigration involving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. NASA workers aren't poker chips, and they don't want to be treated that way.

If the president wants to gamble, perhaps he should go back to running casinos. A casino is where it's commonplace for chips to be tossed around. Gambling with the lives of NASA workers is not acceptable and not in the best interest of the future of the space program.

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