Government shuts down: now what?

Image credit: Martin Falbisoner.

Image credit: Martin Falbisoner.

By now, you’ve probably heard that the United States government is shut down, having failed to pass a budget, something that last happened in 1996. I’ll spare the annoying political details and just say that neither of the two parties seems to have any serious interest in negotiating. The U.S. Constitution, of course, forbids the government from spending any money that is not appropriated by law–a law that Congress has not yet passed.

Now, a lot of the government is still running. Social Security checks are still going out. The mail is still being delivered. The airports are still open…although the TSA isn’t getting paid, which is a little disconcerting. All these things are covered by other laws, often multi-year deals.

On the other hand, a lot of “non-essential” things have stopped. National parks have closed. Many government websites are offline or are not being updated. A lot of agencies are closed, paperwork not being processed, and workers furloughed.

NASA has been hit particularly hard. The only people working there right now are the ones keeping the astronauts on the Space Station alive and keeping current missions like Curiosity and Dawn running (though not doing science). Many of its webpages are down, and while the data pages are still running, so non-NASA scientists can keep working with them, they aren’t being updated.

But the real danger here is to NASA’s next Mars mission, MAVEN. MAVEN is an orbiter intended to study Mars’s upper atmosphere and help with future ground missions. However, it has to launch between November 18 and December 7. Preparations for that launch have ceased. With the launch window so close, even a short delay could mean missing it, delaying the launch until 2016 and costing tens of millions of dollars in additional overhead.

So now what? Well, in a sane world, Congress and President Obama will resolve this in a few days. After all, the real trouble comes on October 17, when Congress has to raise the debt ceiling. If that falls through, then things get much worse. So politicians who know that “It’s the economy, stupid” certainly wouldn’t want to mess that up.Right…?

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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