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NASA returned to work, but the effects of government closure remain

This week, thousands of civil servants and contractors have returned to work at various NASA centers across the country after a record 35-day government shutdown – but it will be some time before he starts working at the agency again, as usual. These first few days ago at work will be overwhelmed with practical questions, such as finding out what the employee’s salary is and how to get back to the projects. Completion of work will undoubtedly lead to delays of some of NASA’s long-term programs, but it will take some time before the space agency can fully assess the extent of the damage.

One way to think about this is that NASA has been closed for one-tenth of a year, says Casey Dreyer, chief attorney and senior space policy advisor at Planetary Society. “You can't just turn off and turn on the US space program like a flashlight,” he says. “You have to warm it up and bring it back to a holistic and functioning system, in which tens of thousands of people are participating.”

To explain how NASA adapts after hours, space agency administrator Jim Bridenstein addressed staff at a meeting in the City Hall this afternoon at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. “Welcome to 2019,” he said during a meeting that was broadcast live on NASATV. "NASA is now open, and we are very grateful for that." The comment was met with applause from the audience, while Bridenstein acknowledged that this was a difficult beginning for the agency. “I want to say thank you for your patience and for your dedication to this agency and the mission we all believe in.”

Bridenstein told the room that some of the NASA staff had left during the shutdown, although it was not so much. “We did not have a mass exodus,” he said. “I think if it lasted longer, we would do it. But we lost people – two and two – at the agency and even here at headquarters. This is absolutely true. "

Brydenstein addresses the workers during the town hall.
(NASA / Bill Ingalls)

Perhaps the agency's contractors suffered the most at NASA. Ultimately, there are two types of employees at NASA: government employees or those directly working in government and commercial contractors who work for government-funded companies to work at NASA. In accordance with federal law, NASA employees are entitled to a refund after the completion of government work. And Brydenstein mentioned that NASA’s financial office was working on weekends to make sure everyone gets their compensation this week. But for tens of thousands of NASA contractors, the situation is more complicated.

Each company funded by NASA has its own contract with an agency, and the provisions of these agreements differ from contract to contract. Some contractors were paid financing before closing, which allowed them to continue to work mostly without interference. However, contractor employees who did not receive funding in advance could not bill for the hours they worked during the shutdown. And it is possible that they will never receive compensation for this time. “When you work, if you work at NASA, be a government employee, remember that the person sitting next to you, who may be a contractor, may or may not receive a back payment,” said Brydenstein.

This uncertainty has led to some personnel changes that make it difficult for NASA to move forward easily. When some contractors were not paid, they transferred their employees to other non-NASA projects. And the point is not that these employees simply return to work at NASA. “This human capital is not being returned to NASA,” Bridenstein said. “This also applies to other projects.” He added that this prolongs the recovery process. “Now that we are open again, we need to hire new people and / or figure out how to get people back on the side of the contract,” he said. “So this is not a one-on-one delay. One day of closing is not equal to one day of returning to the business. ”

One NASA staff member at the town hall asked Briddenstein if it was possible that NASA government officials could set up GoFundMe accounts for contractors who were most affected by the shutdown. Bridenstein and other NASA representatives pointed out that such campaigns will be difficult because employees may face legal conflicts. But employees were asked to speak with their ethics consultants at each center to find out if this was possible. “Just know this, I am proud to be at the helm of the agency where people ask such a question,” said Brydenstein.

Other NASA representatives at the Town Hall addressed issues such as NASA's cybersecurity during closure. René Winn, NASA's chief information officer, said the agency’s cybersecurity was “mostly fully functional,” but some employees still lost their devices during shutdown. The team also had to shut down more than 35 NASA public websites because their failure could jeopardize security, and the information on them was not considered critical.

In general, the long-term impact of a halt at NASA remains to be seen. Initially, NASA estimated that 95 percent of its employees were dismissed during closure, but Brydenstein said that the true number was less than that. And ultimately, many of the important NASA programs, such as servicing the International Space Station and performing planetary missions, continued without delay. Work continued on the NASA Commercial Crew program, an initiative of the agency to send astronauts to the International Space Station in personal vehicles manufactured by SpaceX and Boeing.

But many of NASA's many-year projects were not considered so important and suffered delays. NASA is in the process of selecting new planetary missions for its New Frontier and Discovery programs, and stopping could delay this process, says Dreyer. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Deputy Administrator for Science, moved date when the agency will accept applications for new research proposals. And there is uncertainty around the new giant rocket that NASA is working on to deliver astronauts to the moon and beyond, called the Space Launch System. While much of the rocket design is done by Boeing, NASA is still watching the entire program. And Boeing said politician that the stop has delayed the testing of rocket equipment

In addition, NASA is developing plans for a new space station around the moon, which is called the Gate. It is assumed that the first module for the station will be launched in 2022, but NASA has not even published specific details of how it should look on the gateway modules. It is possible that a halt could delay these development plans even further. “NASA is trying to define, state and create this broad agreement on what this program should be,” says Dreyer. “This goal is to launch the first element of the Gateway by 2022. This is after three years, and NASA must do what it even wants. And he could not continue to work on these aspects during this period. "

Although NASA is still open, it is possible that the agency may face another closure in February. The current resolution, which is currently funded by the government, expires after February 15. And the dispute that triggered the most recent closure — the financing of President Trump’s border wall — was not resolved. Perhaps NASA will soon return to the same situation. This makes it difficult for the agency to work, especially because many NASA initiatives take several years to develop.

“How do you ask NASA to implement the most ambitious space exploration program in the world and provide them with three weeks of guaranteed funding?” Asked Dreyer. “You just can't. It undermines all efforts. ”

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