Government Shutdown May Create Long-Term Challenges for NASA

By: Marie Donlon

According to a report on Space.com, the recent partial shutdown of the U.S. government will likely have long-lasting implications for the nation’s space program.

During the 35-day shutdown that began on Dec. 22, the majority of NASA employees were furloughed, which temporarily halted work on a number of NASA missions, cut funding for other projects and resulted in lost talent.

The operational delays, according to Ken Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages operations for the Hubble Space Telescope, will result in considerable future scheduling conflicts. Meanwhile, Megan Donohue, president of the American Astronomical Society, suggests that outside projects that rely on NASA and other government agencies for funding may end up paying significantly more for project delays.

Additionally, NASA will likely suffer from a phenomenon known as brain drain, where agencies and departments lose talented employees.

"It is absolutely true that when we have a shutdown, we lose people. And that in fact did happen," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a webcast town hall meeting with agency employees.

"We didn't have a mass exodus — I think, had this gone on longer, we would have — but we did lose people, onesies and twosies across the agency and here at headquarters," he added.

While it seems that those numbers are low, experts suggest that since the shutdown was the third one in 2018 alone, it may dissuade scientists and engineers from pursuing a future with NASA in favor of more stable employment.

"How many people will re-evaluate whether they want to work for NASA in the future? We don't know, but it's greater than zero," said Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser at The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates for space exploration. "We're playing with long-term consequences, and we can't understand what they are yet."

Similarly, young scientists just beginning their careers with hefty loans to repay may be scared away from the agency, possibly leaving science entirely.

"We won't really know the true impact for probably some period of time on what it did to the workforce," said Bob Gibbs, NASA's chief human capital officer. "We're in a hypercompetitive market for talent; our people are sought after."

NASA was not the only agency affected by what is now being called the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Science took a hit as well, as long-term scientific research projects were interrupted, resulting in the loss of valuable data. Government websites were also left insecure amid the shutdown, leaving them vulnerable to cyberattack.