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NASA is back to work, but the effects of the government shutdown linger

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There’s still a lot to figure out

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed agency employees during a town hall meeting on Tuesday, January 29th.
(NASA/Bill Ingalls)

This week, thousands of civil servants and contractors are back at work at NASA’s various centers throughout the country following a record 35-day government shutdown — but it will be a while before it’s work as usual again at the agency. These first few days back on the job will be consumed with practical matters, such as figuring out employee backpay and how to dive back into projects. The shutdown will undoubtedly result in delays for some of NASA’s long-term programs, too, but it’ll be a while before the space agency can fully assess the extent of the damage.

One way to think of it is that NASA was just closed for one-tenth of the year, says Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy adviser at The Planetary Society. “You can’t just turn off and on the US space program like a flashlight,” he says. “You have to warm it up and get it back into a coherent and functioning system that involves tens of thousands of people.”

To explain how NASA is adjusting in the wake of the shutdown, the space agency’s administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed employees during a town hall meeting this afternoon at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, DC. “Welcome to 2019,” he said during the meeting, which was live-streamed on NASATV. “NASA is now open and we’re very thankful for that.” The comment was met by applause from those in attendance, while Bridenstine went on to acknowledge that it’s been a rough start to the year for the agency. “I want to say thank you for your patience and for your commitment to this agency and to the mission we all believe in so dearly.”

Bridenstine told the room that some NASA employees did leave during the shutdown, though it wasn’t a substantial amount. “We didn’t have a mass exodus,” he said. “I think had this gone on longer, we would have. But we did lose people — onesies and twosies — across the agency and even here at headquarters. That is absolutely true.”

Bridenstine addressing employees during the town hall.
(NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Perhaps those hit hardest at NASA were the agency’s contractors. Ultimately, there are two types of employees at NASA — civil servants, or those directly employed by the government, and commercial contractors, who are employed by companies funded by government contracts to do work for NASA. Under federal law, NASA employees are entitled to backpay once a government shutdown has ended. And Bridenstine mentioned that NASA’s financial office worked through the weekend to make sure everyone received their backpay this week. But for the tens of thousands of NASA contractors, the situation is more complicated.

Each company funded by NASA has its own contract with the agency, and the provisions of those agreements differ from contract to contract. Some contractors were paid their funding in advance of the shutdown, allowing them to continue working mostly unfazed. However, the employees of contractors who did not receive funding in advance were unable to bill for the hours that they worked during the shutdown. And it’s possible they’ll never receive compensation for that time. “As you go about working, if you’re a civil servant working for NASA, remember that that person sitting next to you, who could be a contractor, may or may not get retroactive pay,” Bridenstine said.

This uncertainty led to some personnel changes that will make it difficult for NASA to move forward easily. When some contractors didn’t get paid, they reassigned their employees to other non-NASA projects. And it’s not a simple matter of these employees just coming back to work at NASA. “That human capital does not come back to NASA,” Bridenstine said. “It stays on those other projects.” He added that this prolongs the recovery process. “Now when we get back open, we have to hire new people and / or figure out how to get people back on the contracting side,” he said. “So it is not a one-for-one delay. One day of shutdown does not equal one day of getting back into business.”

One NASA employee at the town hall asked Bridenstine if it was possible for NASA’s civil servants to set up GoFundMe accounts for the contractors hit hardest by the shutdown. Bridenstine and other NASA officials noted that such campaigns would be complicated, because employees could run into legal conflicts. But employees were told to speak with their ethics counselors at each center to see what was possible. “Just know this, I’m proud to be at the helm of an agency where people ask that kind of question,” Bridenstine said.

Other NASA officials at the town hall addressed issues like NASA’s cybersecurity during the shutdown. Renee Wynn, NASA’s chief information officer, said that the agency’s cybersecurity was “in the most part, fully functional,” but that some employees still lost their devices during the shutdown. The team did have to take down more than 35 public-facing NASA websites, too, because leaving them up could have jeopardized security and the information on them was not considered critical.

Overall, the shutdown’s long-term impact on NASA still remains to be seen. NASA originally estimated that 95 percent of its employees were furloughed during the shutdown, but Bridenstine said that the true number was less than that. And ultimately, many of NASA’s critical programs — such as maintaining the International Space Station and the ongoing planetary missions — continued without delay. Work still progressed on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the agency’s initiative to send astronauts to the International Space Station on private vehicles made by SpaceX and Boeing.

But many of NASA’s multi-year projects weren’t considered so critical, and have suffered delays. NASA is in the middle of selecting new planetary missions to pursue, as part of its New Frontiers and Discovery programs — and the shutdown may have delayed that process, says Dreier. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, pushed back the date for when the agency would accept applications for new science research proposals. And there’s uncertainty surrounding the new giant rocket NASA is working on to take astronauts to the Moon and beyond, called the Space Launch System. While most of the construction of the rocket is done by Boeing, NASA still oversees the entire program. And Boeing told Politico that the shutdown delayed testing of the rocket’s hardware.

Additionally, NASA is in the middle of developing plans for a new space station around the Moon, called the Gateway. The first module for the station is supposed to launch as early as 2022, but NASA hasn’t even released concrete details of what it wants the modules of the Gateway to look like. It’s possible that the shutdown could delay those development plans even further. “NASA is trying to identify, set out, and create this broad agreement about what this program needs to be,” says Dreier. “It has this goal to launch the first element of the Gateway by 2022. That’s three years away now, and NASA needs to put out what it even wants. And it’s been unable to continue working on those aspects of it during this period.”

Though NASA is open for now, it’s possible the agency could be facing yet another shutdown in February. The continuing resolution currently funding the government is set to expire after February 15th. And the dispute that drove the most recent shutdown — funding for President Trump’s border wall — has not been resolved. It’s possible NASA could be back in the same situation soon. That makes things difficult for the agency, especially since many of NASA’s initiatives take multiple years to develop.

“How do you ask NASA to pursue the most ambitious space exploration program in the world and give them three weeks of guaranteed funding?” asks Dreier. “You just can’t. It undermines the entire effort.”