History Repeats Itself, and NASA Bears the Brunt of It

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Oct. 3 2013 11:18 AM

History Repeats Itself, and NASA Bears the Brunt of It

NASA logo upside down
Save Our Space.

In late 1995 and early 1996, for a few weeks, the U.S. government shut down. The reasons for it were different back then than they are now, but if you squint a bit and overgeneralize, it boiled down to Republicans versus Democrats then, too. I was working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center at the time: I was a contractor and not a civil servant; that is, not a government employee. But I remember the tense times, the constant worrying about the next paycheck, the continuing resolutions which didn’t seem to help morale much (“delaying the inevitable” was the going thought around the center).

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

At that time we were assembling STIS, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, a camera that was due to launch on a Shuttle and be placed aboard Hubble in 1997. We were in the throes of testing the parts and building the machine. Once in place, it would look for black holes, distant quasars, newly-formed stars… it was to be one of the most versatile and scientifically important cameras ever launched into space.

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We all knew what STIS meant, and what an honor it was to work on it. We all wanted to work on it. Who wouldn’t? I had used Hubble for my PhD, and the chance to actually add to the telescope itself, to know that we had all done our part to further humanity’s vision… well. It was amazing.

Before the actual shutdown, the threat of a furlough was a dank, dark cloud hanging over that work. It was hard to be hopeful about the future, knowing that at any minute we might all have to drop what we were doing and go home, for an unknown length of time. That hit a lot of folks very hard; they wanted to do their jobs. It wasn’t just worrying over paying the bills, it was actually not doing the work that had so many people upset.

I’m thinking of all this today for obvious reasons, but also because I read a blog entry by Les Johnson, who is a Deputy Manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. In it, he laments not being able to work due to the furlough, and voices exactly what I saw all those years ago.

He ends with this:

We’re working on challenging projects with the goals of advancing our understanding of the universe around us, expanding humanity beyond the Earth so as to ensure the eventual survival of the species, and making the Earth a better place to live for all who inhabit it.  Yes, these are lofty goals and bold assertions.  They are what motivate me and have inspired me since I was a child.  We believe we’re making a difference in the world and we love doing it.
Are there NASA employees who are just punching the clock?  Yes.  But they are in the minority.  Most of us don’t dread Mondays.  Most of us would much rather be working than furloughed and I, for one, would keep working on some of my projects during the furlough if I were allowed to do so.

NASA was the hardest hit of all government agencies by the shutdown, fully 97 percent of its people were furloughed; people who want to work not because it’s just a job, but because the job itself inspires them. Our government may think of NASA as non-essential, but those people staying at home and forbidden from contributing certainly don’t feel that way. Neither do I, nor do many, many others.

The irony of this is palpable. While our government (and let’s not mince words: the Republican party which is now controlled by its fringe elements) makes us look the fools to the rest of the world, it is consistently NASA that makes us look the heroes. I wish the ideologues who have shut down our federal government were able to take a step back from the precipice, from their own petty political needs, and see what they’ve done. NASA is the tip of the iceberg, I know, but it’s a symbol of just how ridiculous, how embarrassing, and, frankly, how stupid this shutdown is.

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