Last week, as the impasse between President Donald Trump and congressional lawmakers calcified, NASA announced that the first significant test of the year, an uncrewed SpaceX launch, would be pushed from late January to no earlier than February. Several news reports suggested the shutdown had contributed to yet another delay.
It hasn’t—at least not yet. NASA and SpaceX tell The Atlantic that, despite speculation, the government shutdown hasn’t affected their work. NASA says the astronaut program, known as Commercial Crew, is part of a small group of NASA activities that are exempt from the government closure, including International Space Station operations, the agency says.
“We believe it’s a national imperative to return the flight of American astronauts on American rockets on American soil,” said Bob Jacobs, a spokesperson for NASA, one of the few still around to respond to questions.
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That means NASA employees collaborating with SpaceX on this effort are still on the job, albeit without pay. The latest schedule change, NASA said, was caused by familiar setbacks. Both sides need more time to finish testing hardware and complete various reviews.
SpaceX employees have had to deal with their own workplace woes, as the company announced on Friday it has laid off nearly 10 percent of its workforce of more than 6,000 people. The layoffs, according to the company, were meant to pave the way for big challenges ahead, such as the construction of a spaceship to carry humans as far as Mars. Asked whether staff involved in Commercial Crew were affected, a spokesperson said only that the downsizing was company-wide.
With negotiations in Washington at a standstill, it’s unclear how long the shutdown will drag on. What would happen if NASA and SpaceX were both ready to go—ready to blast off with the first big test of this years-long effort—but the government was still closed? Would they launch anyway?
“We don’t deal a lot in hypotheticals, but yes,” Jacobs said.
James Gleeson, a spokesperson for SpaceX, confirmed that, yes, if NASA made the call, the company would carry out the uncrewed launch.
Imagine that scenario: the nation hitting a major milestone in its venerable space program, the one that put people on the moon, while its government doesn’t have enough money to function normally.
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The scene may seem less hypothetical in the future, especially if crewed launches reach a steady cadence. In the 1980s, when the space shuttle was flying, the longest government shutdowns lasted a few days. Today, weeks-long closures are becoming the norm. Bipartisan bickering and rocket launches don’t operate on the same schedule, and there may come a time when one can’t wait for the other.