How would a government shutdown affect NASA?

The current continuing resolution that funds the federal government, including NASA, expires in less than a week: midnight on Friday, March 4. Unless Congress can agree to a new funding bill, be it a full FY11 appropriations act, as the House passed last week with HR 1, or another short-term stopgap bill, the federal government will be shut down–just as NASA is wrapping up the STS-133 shuttle mission to the ISS.

For the mission itself, a shutdown would have little or no impact. “For the mission that’s flying we’d probably consider most of the folks mission critical personnel, and that’s pretty much transparent to us,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, in the STS-133 post-launch press conference late Thursday (skip ahead to the 17:50 mark to catch the question from Craig Covault and Gerstermaier’s response.) “I think from a top-level standpoint we’ll be able to just press on and continue kind of the way we’re heading.”

How it might affect preparations for the final two shuttle missions is less clear. “We’ll kind of see what happens. We haven’t really done any detailed contingency planning yet,” Gerstermaier said of the agency’s overall planning.

While a shutdown might not affect the current shuttle mission or ISS operations, much of the rest of the agency might be severely affected. The AP report that during the last government shutdown, in the mid-1990s, only seven percent of NASA employees were at work. It’s not clear whether that percentage would be higher, or even lower, if there’s a government shutdown down in a week, but it’s likely a lot of activities would not be deemed “mission critical” and thus put on hold until a new appropriations bill is passed.


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