NASA braces for possible government shutdown

CBS News

Bracing for a potential government shutdown, NASA managers are assessing shuttle launch processing and putting plans in place to continue near-normal operation of the International Space Station if a workforce furlough is ordered.

Work to ready the shuttle Endeavour for launch April 29 on a mission to deliver supplies, spare parts and a $2 billion particle physics experiment to the space station would be curtailed for the duration of a furlough, although a skeleton crew would remain in place to monitor the spacecraft and ensure its safety.

The shuttle Endeavour atop pad 39A shortly after rollout last month. Launch on a space station mission is targeted for April 29. (Credit: NASA)
But as of Thursday, Endeavour's processing flow included nine days of contingency time and NASA officials said the April 29 launch date likely would not be affected unless a furlough extended beyond April 18 or thereabout.

"Launch processing will not be affected by a government shutdown unless it's lengthy," an agency official said. "We're looking at a line in the sand for day-to-day slip of around April 18. If the furlough is a week or less, we don't anticipate any impact. If it's longer than a week, we're going to have to assess that."

A stopgap spending bill expires at midnight Friday. If lawmakers do not agree on compromise funding for the rest of fiscal 2011, or approve another short-term stopgap bill, a federal shutdown will go into effect.

If so, flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston would continue operating the International Space Station in near-normal fashion and NASA's Mission Management Team would participate in an already planned meeting Monday with the agency's international partners. Less critical support staff would be on call but not report to work.

Shuttle processing at the Kennedy Space Center would come to a virtual standstill. But thanks to a recent delay, no immediate launch date impact would be expected.

Endeavour had been scheduled for launch April 19, but NASA announced April 4 that the 134th shuttle flight would be delayed 10 days because of a conflict with the arrival of a Russian Progress supply ship at the space station. The slip to April 29 gives the space agency more of a cushion than usual to cope with unexpected problems and delays.

NASA plans to close out the shuttle program by launching the Atlantis on June 28 on a final space station resupply mission. As with Endeavour, the June launch target likely would not be affected unless a government shutdown extended beyond nine or 10 days. After that, both flights likely would begin facing delays.

A furlough would have an immediate impact on NASA's public affairs operation, including plans for in-flight media interviews with the space station crew and agency coverage of celebrations in Russia to mark the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's April 12, 1961, launch on the first manned space mission.

Likewise, a news conference April 12 at the Kennedy Space Center to announce which museums will eventually display NASA's three space shuttles would be put on hold.