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Robert Hoyt
Robert Hoyt is the co-founder and CEO of Tethers Unlimited Inc. (TUI via YouTube)

Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited Inc. has laid off about 20 percent of its workforce due to a cash crunch brought on by the partial government shutdown, the company’s CEO says.

Tethers Unlimited snared an impressive lineup of contracts from NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, for work on innovative spacecraft thruster systems and space-based fabrication systems. But it can’t get paid for the work it’s done over the past three months, CEO Rob Hoyt told GeekWire today in an email.

Hoyt expects commercial contracts to keep the company afloat during the shutdown, which has now gone into its fourth week. But he said the decision to cut back on staff was “really painful and disheartening.” In his email, he decried what he called a game of “Russian roulette with the American economy.”

Here’s the full email:

“Because the government employees who are responsible for approving and processing our invoices to NASA and DARPA have been furloughed, we have not been reimbursed for work we performed on multiple contracts in the September-December of 2018, including FabLab, HYDROS, OrbWeaver and Constructible Platform. This has had a severe impact on our cash flow, forcing us to lay off 12 good engineers, about 20 percent of our workforce. It was really painful and disheartening to have to make that decision, and I’m sure even more painful for the staff we had to let go.

“Fortunately our commercial customers are still paying us for the SmallSat products we have been delivering, such as our SWIFT software-defined radios, so we expect to be able to maintain our current staff through this situation. But the financial impacts of this shutdown are really damaging to our ability to support and grow the space industry, and we hope the president and Congress will stop playing Russian roulette with the American economy.”

Among those who left the company is mechanical engineer Lars Osborne, who announced the layoffs in a series of tweets on Saturday:

Tethers Unlimited was founded in 1994 by Hoyt and the late physicist and science-fiction writer Robert Forward to develop technologies using tethers for removal of orbital debris and spacecraft maneuvering. Over the years, it has expanded its portfolio to work on in-space manufacturing, satellite communications systems and other advanced space technologies.

Word of the layoffs came just days after SpaceX announced a 10 percent reduction in its much larger workforce. SpaceX didn’t refer to the shutdown as a factor behind its decision. Instead, the California-based company said it had to become leaner in order to “continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based internet.”

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