What a government shutdown will mean for NASA and SpaceX

The US government is officially shut down, and that means federal agencies like NASA will be forced to send some workers home without pay and alter daily operations. A shutdown won’t have a big impact on the space agency’s biggest projects, but commercial companies like SpaceX — which rely on NASA and other government hardware — may suffer schedule delays.

So far, NASA has been keeping quiet about this particular shutdown and has been directing all questions to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which did not respond to a request for comment. But NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, told employees in an email obtained by The Verge to be on alert for directions over the next couple of days. “If there is a lapse in funding for the federal government Friday night, report to work the same way you normally would until further notice, and you will receive guidance on how best to closeout your activities on Monday,” he wrote in the email.

The most recent guidance from NASA, released in 2017, indicates that all nonessential employees should stay home during a shutdown, while a small contingent of staff continue to work on “excepted” projects. The heads of each NASA center decide which employees need to stay, but they’re typically the people who operate important or hazardous programs, including employees working on upcoming launches or those who operate satellites and the International Space Station.

In fact, NASA has two spacewalks planned for astronauts on the ISS in the next couple of weeks, and those activities aren’t expected to change in light of a shutdown. “When it comes to station operations, we have a plan,” Kenny Todd, NASA’s ISS mission operations integration manager, said during a press briefing about the spacewalks on Thursday. “Mission-essential, critical personnel will be on site, will be working, will be continuing the mission. So we don’t see that as any kind of impact going forward when it comes to our daily operations.”

NASA says that space station flight directors, communications experts, robotics experts, and more will all be on hand for the spacewalks in the next couple of weeks, “to make sure we’re both meeting the program’s objectives but also making sure we’re keeping the crew members safe there and giving them the support they need,” Zeb Scoville, NASA’s spacewalk flight director, said during the briefing. However, it’s unclear if the spacewalks will be broadcast on NASA’s dedicated channel, NASA TV, as the public affairs personnel may be considered nonessential.

NASA’s next big mission is the launch of its exoplanet-hunting satellite, TESS, which is going up on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida in March. So it shouldn’t be affected by a shutdown (unless it takes a while to find a resolution). However, it’s possible that preparations on another big spacecraft, the James Webb Space Telescope, may come to a halt, according to Nature. The space telescope is currently at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for testing, but NASA’s guidelines say that only spacecraft preparations that are “necessary to prevent harm to life or property” should continue during a shutdown.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is slated to launch a communications satellite on January 30th out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The timing of the launch may mean that the company will avoid the shutdown. But if it does occur during the shutdown, the flight might have to wait. The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which oversees launches out of Cape Canaveral, tells The Verge that the shutdown would remove “key members of the civilian workforce” and that it will be “unable to support launch operations.”

SpaceX also has another big project it’s focused on: test firing the engines on its new Falcon Heavy rocket. The test, called a static fire, involves raising the Falcon Heavy vertically on its launchpad and igniting all 27 of its engines while the vehicle is constrained. It’s possible that the test could come early next week. But the Falcon Heavy’s launchpad is located at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and limited staffing at the site could pose a problem. SpaceX told The Verge on Friday that the company did not expect the shutdown to affect its operations. However, the 45th Space Wing says it will not be able to support commercial static fires at KSC during the shutdown, meaning that test will have to be put on pause.

It’s possible NASA will release more information in the next few days — or the shutdown may not even occur if a resolution happens tonight. But no matter what, NASA’s biggest programs will stay afloat, and staff will be on hand to keep astronauts safe.

Update January 22nd, 6:57AM ET: This story was updated twice to incorporate comments from the 45th Space Wing, as well as new information from SpaceX.

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