The AAS meeting is just one of the scientific endeavors diminished by the partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., which entered its 17th day today.
NASA representatives, and researchers whose travel would typically be funded by NASA, have had to cancel their plans to be in Seattle due to the tiff involving the Trump administration and Republicans on one side, and Democrats on the other.
The shutdown affects only a quarter of the federal government — which means that the Defense Department and the Energy Department can continue research and development activities. Work continues as well at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and at the National Institutes of Health.
But most employees at NASA as well as at the Agriculture Department, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service are on furlough.
Some employees — for example, NASA personnel who are supporting operations on the International Space Station or other space missions — are staying on the job but won’t be paid until the shutdown is resolved. Contractors can use the funds left in their accounts until the money runs out.
Rick Fienberg, a spokesman for the AAS, estimates that at least 300 to 450 of the 3,200 attendees registered for this week’s meeting at the Washington State Convention Center won’t be showing up, based on an email survey conducted just after the shutdown went into effect.
“We figure that’s a low number,” Fienberg said, “because a lot of the emails went to government addresses.” Which, of course, are going untended during the shutdown.
Two NASA-organized town halls, which are typically the biggest events at the semi-annual meeting, have been canceled. NASA also canceled a much-anticipated fly-in for its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA — a Boeing 747 jet that has been heavily modified to carry a 106-inch telescope. Dozens of presentations have been reshuffled due to no-shows. Extra webcasts have been added to the streaming schedule for registrants who aren’t able to travel.
NASA will still be represented in the Convention Center’s exhibit hall, but the agency’s booths will be staffed by non-NASA employees. “If you see ’em here, they’re contractors,” said Allison Youngblood, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Youngblood, who studies M-dwarf stars, qualifies as one of those contractors because she’s technically employed by the Universities Space Research Association. But she misses seeing her colleagues at Goddard and other NASA centers.
“It’s not devastating, but it’s disappointing,” she said.
AAS Executive Officer Kevin Marvel expressed a similar sentiment.
“It is a true disappointment that hard-working scientists seeking to explore and understand the universe on behalf of the American public and to share their results with their colleagues and really move our knowledge forward are basically being prevented from doing so by political impasse,” he said in a statement. “In the same week that the Chinese government lands a rover [on the far side of the moon] and the U.S. sends a probe to the furthest object ever visited … scores of scientists at all career levels are being prevented from attending our meeting.”
Marvel said “the shutdown is disruptive to us as an organization, disruptive to the science of astronomy and will have unknown impacts on the progress of discovery in astronomy.”
— Kevin Marvel (@kevinbmarvel) January 7, 2019
The disruption goes far beyond Seattle and this week’s astronomical meeting: Research has been suspended at affected federal facilities, and the National Science Foundation has put all funding opportunities and grant awards on hold.
Some NSF-funded programs — including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope — have enough money on hand to continue working at their current pace for a few more weeks. But if the shutdown continues much longer, cutbacks will have to take hold.
LIGO’s next yearlong observing run had been scheduled to begin next month, but that’s now a question mark.
NASA’s launch schedule is up in the air as well. At least one suborbital research launch has already been postponed due to the shutdown, which raises questions about Blue Origin’s plan to launch NASA payloads on a soon-to-be-flown suborbital spaceship..
Meanwhile, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the first uncrewed test flight of his company’s Crew Dragon space taxi, which had previously been set for as early as Jan. 17, is now “about a month away.” Even though SpaceX conducted a rollout and fit check for the Dragon and its Falcon 9 rocket last week, the launch can’t proceed until NASA’s reviewers are back at work.