Space
2:36 pm
Wed October 2, 2013

The Government Shutdown's Final Frontier: How NASA Is Dealing

Originally published on Fri October 4, 2013 8:39 am

If ET wants to phone home, this is not the week to do it. NASA's phone lines are down, as are its website and many Twitter feeds. All have been silenced by the government shutdown, whose far-reaching consequences are now stretching into space.

The shutdown began on Tuesday, after Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives failed to come to an agreement over the federal budget. Most of the government's nonessential services have ground to a halt, and among the hardest hit agencies is NASA.

One of the few lines of communication that remain open is with the International Space Station, where six astronauts, including two from NASA, are still working in orbit. A skeleton crew remains at Mission Control in Houston, talking to the astronauts and trying to keep them occupied.

"We just have some new people up on the space station getting used to the environment and I think it's good for them to know they've got full support from the ground," Mike Trenchard, a contractor working at Mission Control, told NPR member station KUHF.

NASA's other space missions are all unmanned. Many are run by outside institutions, and so for the moment, they're unaffected. Curiosity is still driving across Mars, thanks to researchers employed by the California Institute of Technology and other universities. Probes to study Pluto, Mercury and the sun are all also up and running. And then there's the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The Hubble is open for business and doing science as we speak," says Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the Hubble for NASA. The institute has enough cash on hand to keep Hubble going for a few more weeks, provided nothing goes wrong. But in space, things can go wrong. Stray radiation can strike at any time.

"One of these very high energy particles from the sun can cause a spike in the electronics," Mountain says. It happens several times a year, and when it does Hubble goes into a protective, safe mode.

"It swings the spacecraft away from the sun and closes down all the instruments and just sits there," he says.

The only way for the Hubble to resume observations is for ground control to reboot it. But ground control is run by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which is currently closed. So if something happens, Hubble will just have to sit there, in orbit, until the shutdown ends.

The shutdown is hardest is for space probes preparing to leave the planet. Bruce Jakosky is in charge of a mission to Mars called MAVEN. The $671 million orbiter will study Mars' atmosphere. This mission can only launch when the planets Mars and Earth are aligned.

"We have a 20-day period in which we can launch this time around, and that runs from Nov. 18 to Dec. 7," Jakosky says.

Researchers were working feverishly at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, getting MAVEN ready to go. But yesterday the shutdown started. They had to turn everything off and leave the building. Now nobody can get in. The only way Jakosky can see his spacecraft is via a webcam they set up before they left.

"We're anxious to get back to work; we're anxious to get back on track," he says. "After about a week I'm going to get really concerned."

If the shutdown runs longer, they could miss their launch window. The next one won't come until 2016.

Update Oct. 4: The MAVEN mission to Mars has been deemed critical because it can relay signals between the rovers on the red planet and Earth. Preparations for the launch have restarted.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to focus now on what the government shutdown looks like in space. Nearly everyone at NASA has been furloughed, and NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports the impact could ground some major missions.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: If E.T. wants to phone home, this is not the week to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Johnson Space Center News Room is currently closed due to a lapse in government funding.

BRUMFIEL: That's the message greeting reporters trying to call the headquarters of manned space flight in Houston, Texas. Mission Control at Houston is the lifeline to the International Space Station, where six astronauts, including two from NASA, are still working in orbit. There's a skeleton staff keeping in touch, including Mike Trenchard. NPR caught up with him yesterday across the road from mission control.

MIKE TRENCHARD: We're trying to keep all the crew's issues and questions about what to do, and keep them busy while we're going through this shutdown.

BRUMFIEL: NASA's other space missions are all unmanned. Many are run by outside institutions, and so for the moment they're unaffected. Curiosity is still driving across Mars, thanks to researchers not employed by NASA. And then there's the Hubble Space Telescope.

MATT MOUNTAIN: The Hubble is open for business and doing science, as we speak.

BRUMFIEL: Matt Mountain is director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the Hubble for NASA. For now, they've got the money to keep going, provided nothing goes wrong. But things can go wrong. Stray radiation can strike at any time.

MOUNTAIN: One of these very high-energetic particles from the sun can cause a spike in the electronics.

BRUMFIEL: It happens several times a year. And when it does, Hubble goes into a protective safe mode.

MOUNTAIN: It swings the spacecraft away from the sun and closes down all the instruments and just sits there.

BRUMFIEL: Until ground control reboots it. Except ground control is run by NASA, so Hubble would just have to sit there until the shutdown ends.

But the shutdown is hardest is for space probes preparing to leave the planet. Bruce Jakosky is in charge of a mission to Mars called MAVEN. It will study Mars's atmosphere. The mission can only launch when the planets Mars and Earth are aligned.

BRUCE JAKOSKY: We have a 20-day period in which we can launch this time around and that runs from November 18th through December 7th.

BRUMFIEL: Researchers were working feverishly at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, getting MAVEN ready to go. But yesterday the shutdown started: they had to turn everything off and leave the building. Now nobody can get in. The only way Jakosky can see his spacecraft is via webcam.

JAKOSKY: We're anxious to get back to work. We're anxious to get back on track.

BRUMFIEL: Do you find yourself just like clicking refresh on the webcam...

(LAUGHTER)

BRUMFIEL: ...to see if anything's happened to MAVEN?

JAKOSKY: No, I do find myself clicking refresh on the news outlets online to see if anything's happened to the government.

BRUMFIEL: Jakosky figures they've got about a week to spare. If the shutdown runs longer, though, they could miss their launch window. The next one won't come until 2016.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.