Tuesday, October 1, 2013

NASA Shutdown, Space Still Open

Government shutdown? Well, kind of.

Political maneuverings in our nation's capital have resulted in a "government shutdown." The mainstream media is awash in dire threats of layoffs, harm to the economy, senior citizens in danger, and essential services taken off line. NASA, as a government agency, is part of the shutdown. So what does that mean for space operations? According to NASA's information releases, "During a shutdown, most NASA operations would cease and most employees would be furloughed, with the exception of operations and personnel needed to protect life and property." Like the FAA and TSA, mission control in Houston will continue to function and assist the Expedition 37 crew aboard the ISS, and essential satellites and communications systems will continue to operate. According to Jeff Faust of SpacePolitics, several hundred employees remain on duty, though there is some worry that should the shutdown be prolonged, launch dates could be affected. He notes that the Kennedy Visitor Center in FLorida will remain open, as it is run by a private industry, although the parts of the tour that enter NASA facilities will be closed.

And that brings up an important point. It may have started small, but there is a growing effort to bring space operations out of government administration and placed into the hands of private enterprise. With that note, we can look at a couple of important milestones this week.

Falcon Improved lifts off from Vandenberg. Credit: SpaceX.

Private space ventures like SpaceX continue to operate. Just last Sunday, SpaceX launched the Falcon 9.1 rocket from the Vandenberg AFB in California. The new rocket features engines that are less expensive to manufacture and greater performance. This launch was used to place a Canadian technology test satellite into orbit. As the US military will not be affected by the government shutdown (except for private contractors), military launch facilities remain open and military space assets continue to operate. SpaceX is working on other launch facilities. They are creating a new launch pad in Texas, and are in negotiations with NASA to lease the older Pad 39 B site which was used for Apollo and Shuttle operations but is no longer needed.

Proton launch from Baikonur. Credit: RIA Novosti.

And don't forget, America is just one player in the space game. International space operations continue as normal. On Monday, Russia launched a new Proton-M rocket for the first time since July's failure. The troubled system has some worried that difficulties could endanger the launch of the new Russian module to the ISS. The July Proton failure resulted in the loss of three Glonass GPS satellites, and was quickly followed by news of a scandal in the program. It was also determined that the crash was due to the faulty upside-down placement of three sensors in the rocket. This Monday's launch placed a communications satellite.

It's not likely that the NASA shutdown will last very long, as both political parties in Washington will be searching for a way out of the mess. Let's hope all goes well and no disasters occur during the "slowdown."

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