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Unpaid NASA workers protect critical missions during government shutdown

NASA employees working without pay

NASA managers and engineers working on the agency's high-priority commercial crew program are still on the job, without pay, during the ongoing government shutdown, continuing preparations for the first unpiloted launch of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft on a long-awaited test flight in February, officials say.

Whether senior NASA managers would actually press ahead with the Demo-1, or DM-1, launch if the shutdown lasts that long is not yet clear. But multiple agency officials confirm unpaid government personnel are in place to carry out final safety assessments, a flight readiness review and other required pre-flight activities if it comes to that.

In the meantime, NASA sources say SpaceX is expected to test fire the first stage engines of the Falcon 9 rocket slated for use in the test flight next week at historic launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The unpiloted test flight is tentatively targeted for launch Feb. 9, although sources say additional delay is expected.

Whenever it goes up, the spacecraft will carry out an autonomous rendezvous and docking, spending about two weeks attached to the lab complex before returning to Earth with an ocean splashdown.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft atop pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this month. The spacecraft is scheduled for launch on a critical unpiloted test flight next month. SpaceX

Assuming the initial flight goes well, NASA and SpaceX plan to launch another Crew Dragon, this one carrying two NASA astronauts, on a flight to the space station in the June timeframe. After that, again assuming no major problems, the spacecraft could begin operational flights to the orbital lab before the end of the year or shortly thereafter.

Boeing also is working toward two test flights of its CST-100 Starliner capsule, the first without a crew and the second with three astronauts aboard. Those flights are expected in the spring and late summer respectively.

The commercial crew missions, support of the International Space Station and major NASA space probes like the Hubble Space Telescope, along with work on missions awaiting launch, like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars 2020 rover, are considered critical. As such, agency workers remain on the job without pay, monitoring contractors and helping meet milestones.

"None of the major programs are in any imminent threat in terms of oh my God, we've got to shut this down," a NASA official said. "Mars 2020 is still going, Webb is still being worked on ... not only (to protect the hardware) but potentially missing a launch window is also considered critical as well. None of that is impacted.

"Basically, the operational missions are being maintained and the work continued on them if they're considered critical," he added. "And most of them are."

But at some point, if the government remains in partial shutdown and NASA continues to be unable to pay its mounting bills, projects on the ground, at least, could face slowdowns or work stoppages. Insiders say the agency is probably on solid ground through the end of the month, but if the shutdown extends very far into February, serious consequences, in terms of delays and higher costs, may be unavoidable.

The long-awaited commercial crew missions are critical steps in NASA's push to end the nation's sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for ferrying crew members to and from the International Space Station at more than $80 million per seat. The final currently contracted U.S.-sponsored seats on a Soyuz are booked for launch in July.

SpaceX holds NASA contacts valued at around $3 billion for 20 space station resupply flights using automated Dragon cargo ships through next year and another contract for an unspecified amount for at least six additional flights through 2024. The company's Crew Dragon project is funded through a separate contract valued at up to $2.6 billion.

Boeing's contract for development of the CST-100 Starliner is valued at $4.2 billion. Both contracts, awarded in 2014, called for initial flights in 2017 but the program has been repeatedly delayed by funding shortfalls in Congress and by technical issues.

Sources say NASA personnel working on the first four commercial crew missions, two with each company, are considered "excepted," or critical to the program and therefore allowed to continue working, without pay, during the shutdown.

SpaceX announced a 10 percent company-wide workforce reduction last Friday, but officials said the move was intended to streamline operations related to other company objective. No mention was made of the shutdown, and the company did not immediately answer emailed questions about its impact on commercial crew operations.

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An artist's impression of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft moments before docking at the International Space Station. NASA

Boeing said in a statement the shutdown has not had a major impact on the company to date. But it's not clear how long Boeing, SpaceX and their subcontractors can continue work on the NASA projects in the absence of expected payments.

"While the partial government shutdown has not had a material impact on Boeing to date, we are concerned about the short term effects on our friends, families and neighbors in the communities we operate in as well as the long term effects that may begin to weigh on our operational efficiency, pose other challenges for our business and the aviation and space sector in general," Boeing said in a statement.

"We urge the Administration and Congress to reach a solution to this funding impasse quickly to fully reopen the government and preserve U.S. economic growth."

NASA and contractor flight controllers and support personnel at the Johnson Space Center in Houston also remain on the job supporting the space station and its six-member crew. That includes monitoring the spacecraft's health, coordinating with the Japanese, European and Russian space agencies and maintaining normal communications through NASA's Tracking and Data Relay System satellites.

NASA and its contractors also are continuing work on the agency's heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep space capsule, although project milestones face possible delays. Other high-profile NASA projects remain in operation as well, although in virtually all cases NASA personnel are working without pay.

The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, continues making science observations in low-Earth orbit. One of its four operational instruments, the Wide Field Camera 3, has been sidelined by a technical problem, but managers are optimistic it can be restored to normal operation soon despite the shutdown.

"The shutdown is not affecting us (at the Space Telescope Science Institute), and the flight operations people at Goddard (Space Flight Center) are considered essential," Thomas Brown, head of the Hubble Space Telescope mission office at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said in an interview last week.

"As far as troubleshooting this anomaly on Wide Field Camera 3 ... we have all the experts from the flight ops team and the people who built the instrument at Ball Aerospace. They're also not affected by the shutdown. We have all the right experts on the line troubleshooting things. So we're fine right now."

Contractor funding for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory was expected to run out next week, but NASA has declared the spacecraft "excepted" and the Smithsonian Institution, which operates Chandra through the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, has agreed to advance funding to cover operating expenses as necessary through mid-March.

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Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule will fly into space atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket as shown in this artist's impression. NASA

Likewise, work continues on the James Webb Space Telescope, the $9.7 billion follow-on to Hubble scheduled for launch in March 2021. The oft-delayed and over-budget JWST is currently undergoing critical tests and checkout at a Northrop Grumman facility in California.

While the shutdown has curtailed NASA participation and oversight, an agency manager said no critical steps would be taken "before the agency could give it the appropriate oversight. No one's going to be able to put anything together without (NASA) looking at it at some point."

Other operational spacecraft, ranging from the twin Voyagers now in interstellar space to the Parker Solar Probe in orbit around the sun, also remain under active NASA or contractor oversight and control to protect the vehicles and to make sure the flow of valuable science continues throughout the shutdown.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto in 2015 and carried out the first flyby of a Kuiper Belt body known as Ultima Thule on New Year's Day, is beaming back stored science data to the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University using NASA's Deep Space Network antennas in Australia, Spain and California.

The DSN, like NASA's TDRS communications satellite system, is considered a critical asset and is in no danger of shutting down in the near term.

New Horizons mission releases first photo of Ultima Thule
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