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Shutdown fallout: Will NASA launch Mars probe on time?

Shutdown fallout: Will NASA launch Mars probe on time?
With NASA staff sent home and the Curiosity rover dozing off on Mars, former astronaut Tom Jones tells RT how the US government shutdown will affect the space agency’s projects and deadlines.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s 55th birthday celebrations on October 1 were marred as it [NASA] sustained one of the biggest blows of all the governmental agencies due to the stalemate in Congress.

Almost 97 percent of NASA’s workers are currently ‘furloughed’, with only 550 of its 18,000 employees continuing to execute official duties.

“It’s frustrating because everyone has deadlines,” Tom Jones, who completed four space shuttle flights before retiring in 2001, said. “Everyone has a schedule to keep and to be told to mark time and loose this time makes everyone feel that they’re not able to do their job. And people at NASA tend to be very dedicated, driven people, who want to make deadlines, who want to make projects go forward and so they find it frustrating just not to be able to work on them at all.” 

“The very essential folks,” who remain in their jobs, are entitled to maintain operations related to the International Space Station and key science and communications satellites.

“The idea is to not lose any of the space operations, results, benefits, experiments and so forth,” the astronaut explained.   

Screenshot from nasa.gov

Though the data sent back from space won’t be analyzed, until the standoff over healthcare reforms ends in Congress and an agreement on funding for the new fiscal year is reached.  

All the other NASA operations are suspended, with the agency’s internet portal saying: “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.”

Even the Curiosity robotic rover, which made headlines by finding water on Mars, has stopped in its tracks after being put into “protective mode”.

There are fears that the government shutdown may also compromise future US space projects, including the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission.

The mission, which is set to launch on November 18 this year, may well be rescheduled for 2016 if it misses a three-month launch window.

Reuters / Bill Ingalls

According to Jones, MAVEN will blast off into space on the scheduled day.

“All of the NASA projects are going to be in delays now as of this shutdown. I hope it’s only a few days,”
the 58-year-old said. “But the ones, which are heading towards an imminent launch, like the MAVEN probe to Mars, which is launching in November. That team is being kept active and that spacecraft is proceeding along its launch path. So, there won’t be any delay because the planets and their alignment won’t wait. And that launch window has to be met.”  

The astronaut said that NASA was keeping in touch with the events in Congress and has been able to prepare for possible government shutdown if it lasts for “only few days”.

But the space agency “would be shocked if they saw three or four weeks of shutdown,” he stressed, because it would be bad for the employees’ morale, prevent important decisions on future launches from being made and cost money, which would make a severe impact on NASA’s programs considering “its limited budget.”