Science and the shutdown and a lonely birthday for NASA

BY Jenny Marder  October 1, 2013 at 4:50 PM EST


The parachute for the Mars Science Laboratory mission to Mars. The Mars Curiosity Rover will stop collecting data during the shutdown. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech.



Just before 11 p.m. Monday night, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft sent this message via Twitter:

Of course, it wasn’t Voyager sending the tweet, it was Voyager’s handlers here on Earth. But the slight whiff of snarkiness coming from the intrepid spacecraft that’s hurtling through deep space — and depending very much on government funding to do so — highlights the powerful impact this shutdown has on science and the nation’s scientific agencies.

At NASA, Mission Control in Houston remains active to support the crew aboard the International Space Station. But nearly all other space agency operations have ground to a halt. Most of the agency’s 18,000 employees have been placed on furlough, spacecrafts and satellites not yet launched are grounded and while the Hubble Space Telescope will continue peering into far flung galaxies, no one will be there to collect the data.

“If a satellite mission has not yet been launched, work will generally cease on that project,” NASA’s shutdown plan reads. “The extent of support necessary and the time needed to safely cease project activities will depend on whether any of the activities are of a hazardous nature (e.g., parts of the satellite may need to be cooled).”

Work preparing for the Mars MAVEN mission, which was slated for a Nov. 18 launch, for example, has stopped, and could delay the craft’s planned mission to Mars.

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NASA’s website, normally a multimedia haven of videos and images and space trivia, now looks like this. And in an ironic turn of events, this all happens to fall on NASA’s 55th birthday.

Even the Mars Curiosity spacecraft, the Atlantic reports, “will face its own little robot furlough: The explorer will ‘be put in a protective mode’ for the duration of the shutdown, and will not collect any new data during that time.”

At the National Institutes of Health, shutdown mode applies to all “non-essential personnel.” Those dealing with patient care, animal care and national defense, for example, are exempt. No new grants will be awarded, but existing grant funding won’t get pulled. And “NIH-funded researchers can continue their research for as long as their money holds out,” Science Magazine reports. But with the support system shut down, scientists better hope they don’t encounter any problems.

At the National Science Foundation, the picture is more grim. The NSF will stop funding grant payments for the duration of the showdown. And the Centers for Disease Control will be severely limited in spotting the spread of flu or investigating disease outbreaks.

At national parks, campers have 48 hours to take down their tents and leave their campsites.

And file under the most adorable casualty of the shutdown: The world’s window into the National Zoo’s month-old, three-pound panda cub and her mom Mei Xiang has gone dark. The Panda Cam will be shuttered until the shutdown ends.