NASA celebrated its 55th anniversary by shuttering websites and furloughing most of its 18 000 employees as a U.S. government shutdown took effect on 1 October. But future space exploration missions stand to suffer the most from the shutdown's impact.
The U.S. space agency will likely halt work on satellites or spacecraft that have yet to launch, according to NASA's shutdown plans detailed by SPACE.com. Phil Plait, creator of Bad Astronomy, points out that the shutdown could delay the upcoming Mars MAVEN mission beyond its scheduled launch on 18 November and possibly push the mission back until 2016—the next time when Mars and the Earth will be aligned in the best positions for the spacecraft to reach the red planet.
A skeleton crew of mission controllers in Houston continues to support the six members of the International Space Station, including two NASA astronauts, an Italian astronaut, and three Russian cosmonauts. But an astounding 97 percent of NASA's approximately 18 134 employees won't work during the government shutdown.
Still, NASA's shutdown plan includes measures to maintain existing satellites and spacecraft such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the recently-launched LADEE lunar probe, even if the agency will put scientific measurements and photo collection on hold.
"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)," according to NASA's shutdown plan.
Perhaps the most public sign of NASA's shutdown is the sudden silence from NASA's many active social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. NASA TV has gone offline, and visitors to the NASA.gov website are greeted with the message: "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available."
Not every space mission has gone into immediate shutdown mode. NASA missions operated by private contractors—such as the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory—will continue normal operations for the rest of the week, according to a Planetary Society blog post.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory covers a wide range of missions such as the Mars Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Cassini spacecraft exploring the moons of Saturn, the Dawn spacecraft sent to investigate two asteroids, the Voyager 1 spacecraft roaming interstellar space and more. The Applied Physics Laboratory covers the MESSENGER mission orbiting Mercury and the New Horizons spacecraft headed for Pluto.
But JPL and APL spokespersons told the Planetary Society that their facilities would still have to conserve existing funding to keep operating beyond the shutdown—taking it week by week until the U.S. Congress can pass a spending bill that can put NASA back on course.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.