NASA’s pursuit of new vehicles for lifting astronauts into space is running into more technical setbacks this month, and experts pin some of the blame on the partial government shutdown. They note that the federal fiscal impasse has furloughed more than 95% of the space agency’s workforce—including some of the technical support teams that oversee these vehicles’ test launches.
Amid these workforce disruptions, a NASA partner had to postpone a much-anticipated test flight of its experimental Dragon spaceflight vehicle. The launch was to take place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 17, but NASA announced just last week that the launch won’t take place until some unspecified time in February or even later.
Nearly half the Space Center’s staff are on furlough—and arguably, this would complicate any attempt to conduct an experimental space-vehicle launch on time.
Critical production timelines are at play. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has assigned two contractors to develop new spaceflight vehicles for U.S. astronauts, who haven’t had a space transport of their own since the demise of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. For the last seven years, astronaut crews have had to carpool with Russian cosmonauts aboard Russia’s Soyuz space vehicles, which launch out of Kazakhstan.
But the contract for NASA’s use of Soyuz runs out in November of this year, and Russia has made no promise to extend it. So, if the Commercial Crew Program doesn’t have some mission-ready vehicles to take over by this year’s end, our astronauts might be left with no means of reaching space whatsoever.
The Commercial Crew Program was already delayed, initially meant to have vehicles ready for mission service by 2017, but technical difficulties and funding shortfalls forced the project milestones further and further back. Thus, the Dragon was already at least two years overdue when its would-be January 17 uncrewed flight got called off.
The Dragon launch was set to be followed up with a first-ever “crewed” Dragon mission—i.e., with live astronauts aboard—in April. Meantime, the experimental Starliner space vehicle on an uncrewed test flight this spring and follow up with a crewed flight in the summer. These already-tenuous target dates all become even less tenable as the government shutdown grinds on.
“If the shutdown continues for an even more extended period of time, the effects may begin to weigh on our operational efficiency and pose other challenges for our business,” a Boeing spokesperson told Quartz. “We urge the Administration and Congress to reach a solution to this funding impasse quickly to fully reopen the government.”
Could the Shutdown Cause a Government Space Exodus?
The shutdown isn’t completely stopping the work, however. The companies are using their own funding and facilities to keep testing and fine-tuning the vehicles on their own. Indeed, some space scientists worry aloud that furloughs such as this one will drive many NASA employees to leave for shutdown-proof jobs in the private spaceflight sector.
No private spaceflight company, however, will be in a position to adequately prepare its new vehicles for actual missions involving actual astronauts if the federal government isn’t open. The vehicles’ test flights need NASA engineers to certify the rockets and modules as safe and operational, and to assess the launch data for any unforeseen glitches.
“They are not going to fly without NASA personnel watching very closely,” Dale Ketcham, vice-president of government and external affairs for Space Florida, told the Orlando Business Journal.
These test flights need other federal partners, as well. They rely on the Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate the airspace trajectory and obtain launch licenses; and the U.S. Air Force to provide weather and radar and to conduct safety inspections of the launch pad.
Space vehicles are very durable machines. They are built to withstand extreme heat and cold, crushing air pressure, deadly radiation, and all the turbulence that a rocket-propelled blast through the stratosphere can inflict. But an interrupted federal funding stream may be one obstacle that their engineering cannot overcome.