Happy birthday, NASA. Now take today off. It may be the first of many such days, thanks to the federal government shutdown.
As NASA celebrates the 55th anniversary of the start of its formal operations on October 1, 1958, roughly 97 percent of its workers are out on furlough today. They join thousands of other federal employees facing furloughs, with possible lost pay, due to the U.S. government shutdown resulting from Congress failing to approve a budget for federal agencies.
At the high-profile space agency, mentioned by President Barack Obama in a Monday speech warning of the consequences of the stop in federal activities, the effects have been quickly felt. Websites for most of the agency's centers have become unavailable (except the site for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, apparently), NASA alerts of dangerous asteroids have halted, and the November 18 launch of the MAVEN space mission to Mars may be delayed.
"NASA will shut down almost entirely, but Mission Control will remain open to support the astronauts serving on the Space Station," Obama said in his speech.
While Congress bickers, the 20-day launch window for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) draws closer. The MAVEN spacecraft is an orbiter that will probe the Martian atmosphere.
"The worse-case scenario is that MAVEN misses its launch opportunity to Mars," writes the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier. Launch windows to Mars—when Earth's orbit aligns with the red planet's, enabling a lower-cost trip—come around only once every 26 months. "If MAVEN cannot launch in time, it will have to wait for the next opportunity in early 2016, a delay that would cost NASA's Planetary Science Division tens of millions of dollars it cannot afford," Dreier says.
Elsewhere at the space agency, the effects of the shutdown will become worse over time, says Keith Cowing of NASA Watch: "If they only lose a few days, then we lose a week of work, but over time there will be a satellite that has a problem or a design change that doesn't get fixed in time and we will see real impacts."
Cowing suggests that shutting down the NASA websites immediately is a bit of an attention-grabbing device by the space agency, rather than a real necessity. "One thing to keep in mind is that the earlier federal sequester has already disrupted travel and a lot of planning at NASA already," says Cowing. "I think a lot of NASA employees are looking at this as just another burden, saying, 'Enough already. What's next?'"
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