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Lost in space: Government shutdown hits NASA hard, puts $650 million robot in jeopardy

News_Johnson Space Center_NASA_by Raniero Tazzi
Government shutdown affects thousands of Johnson Space Center employees. Photo by Raniero Tazzi

While the United States government is shut down, 97 percent of the 18,134 NASA employees are furloughed, making it the United States agency with the highest percentage of employees currently left without work.

With 3,200 NASA personnel working at Johnson Space Center, this represents the most significant way the government shutdown affects the Houston area.

Kelly Humphries, a spokesperson for NASA, says that of the 3,200 civil servants working at Johnson Space Center, only 93 are exempt from the furlough, including those working to maintain operations aboard the International Space Station. Some of these employees, while exempt from the furlough, will not be at Johnson Space Center, but will work from home.

 If the shutdown is lengthy, there may not be enough time to make sure that the Mars probe launches on schedule. 

Additionally, while most of Houston's NASA civil servants are furloughed during the government shutdown, many will remain on call in case of an emergency.

Due to the government shutdown, even NASA's Internet presence is currently on hold. Everything from NASA's social media accounts to the agency's website are presently shut down. The agency went so far as to say on Twitter that it will no longer be responding to tweets and that all scheduled NASA events are "postponed or canceled until further notice."

One of the most significant problems caused by the NASA furlough is with the MAVEN probe, which is scheduled to be launched between Nov. 18 and Dec. 7 of this year. The probe, a $650 million robotic explorer, is designed to enter Mars' orbit and study the planet's atmosphere. During the shutdown, personnel working on the MAVEN project are considered as "nonessential" and have been furloughed.

If the shutdown is lengthy, there may not be enough time to make sure that the probe launches on schedule. If that is the case, the probe will be stored until the next launch window, which would delay the MAVEN launch until 2016.

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