Published in The Patriot Ledger October 12, 2013
NASA, our National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was founded on October 1, 1958, as part of our country’s response to the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik, the Earth’s first artificial satellite. But instead of celebrating its 55th birthday on October 1, 2013, NASA shut down. Most federal agencies are suffering from the current government shutdown, but none more than NASA. Of the space agency’s more than 18,000 employees, 97% have been furloughed, with less than 600 rated “essential” and allowed to come to work.
Of necessity, some projects continue. NASA is not deserting U.S. astronauts Karen Nyberg and Mike Hopkins, currently living and working on the International Space Station, in orbit 250 miles above the Earth. A skeleton ground crew at Mission Control will continue to support them, and future launches to supply cargo to the station have been deemed essential and will be maintained. That will be of great comfort to Karen and Mike, who will not become “lost in space.”
Once spacecraft have been designed, built, and launched, usually only a few workers on the ground are required to keep them in operation. Thus LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer), NASA’s moon mission launched on September 6, was successfully maneuvered into lunar orbit on October 6 by NASA employees despite the shutdown. More in danger are projects not yet launched.
There was much concern that a government shutdown of even a few weeks would delay by over two years the planned launch of MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN), our latest mission to Mars. Because the relative positions of Earth and Mars change as they orbit the Sun, favorable “launch windows” to Mars come only once every 26 months, and the next opportunity is just a month away. However, MAVEN, in addition to its own scientific goals, will be providing an improved communication link to Curiosity and Opportunity, our expensive rovers currently exploring the surface of Mars. Thus the project was rated essential and a November launch is still planned. Delaying MAVEN would have been very costly, both scientifically and financially. Like the space station astronauts, the rovers Curiosity and Opportunity will thankfully not become “lost in space.”
Many other NASA projects, however, will be delayed, including testing of the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the hugely successful and popular Hubble telescope, which has been orbiting Earth and photographing distant galaxies for over twenty years now. The delayed testing will push forward the Webb’s launch date, and will raise the final cost of the telescope an estimated million dollars a day.
Other projects that will be delayed and thereby produce eventual cost increases are Orion, the space vehicle being developed to carry astronauts beyond low-earth orbit (for the first time since 1972) to explore asteroids and eventually to explore Mars, and the Space Launch System that will lift them on their way. Also at risk are OSIRIS-REX, NASA’s sample-return mission to an asteroid, and its project to capture a small asteroid, drag it back to lunar orbit and send astronauts up to examine it. Even current projects, like the Hubble telescope, will suffer if they develop trouble and need expert help from the ground – expert help that is on furlough.
Stephen Colbert, a great fan of NASA, last week referred on his TV show to their 97% shutdown and offered a “sneak peek at NASA’s final scene,” showing a clip of the new movie “Gravity” in which an accident leaves astronaut Sandra Bullock adrift in space. We trust that the 3% of NASA’s staff still at work will protect not only astronauts Karen and Mike and rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, but also Sandra Bullock, “America’s Sweetheart.”