Two historic space milestones occurred over just the last month. First, NASA’s New Horizons program photographed Ultima Thule located four billion miles from Earth. Days later, China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.
Beyond the scientific achievement of these endeavors, these successes reveal striking contrasts in the sense of urgency of the two preeminent 21st century spacefaring nations. China’s ambitions in future space operations are unambiguous in actively seeking every advantage to gain ground on U.S. dominance in space.
Meanwhile, the civilian U.S. space agencies – NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – were actively seeking personnel and contractor workarounds to maintain core missions to cope with the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
If the old adage is true that businesses benefit from certainty, then U.S. space companies that rely on the federal government have a big problem. Far beyond the immediate effects of furloughed federal workers, American commercial space plans were placed largely on hold.
As the shutdown slowly rolled out over a week five period, the impacts and consequences became quite clear. Space companies who required information or approval for scheduled activities scrambled to ascertain the level of operational or financial risk stemming from the uncertainty of the shutdown. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and the FCC were unable to issue new licenses or modify existing licenses. Even DARPA’s much-heralded Launch Challenge prize competition had been placed on hold pending a delay in processing applications. In the most striking real-world example, a commercial start up even delayed a suborbital launch due to its inability to access critical wind data from NOAA, essential for pre-launch safety analysis.
Mundane and yet essential contract reviews and downselect decisions, grant solicitations, requests for proposals (RFPs), research and postgraduate fellowships all were delayed or postponed because of the shutdown. Even the National Science Foundation suspended reviews of grant proposals.
Fortunately, the U.S. government held fast to its commitment to fund operations required for the protection of life and property, such as maintenance of the International Space Station and other orbiting spacecraft. Importantly, during the shutdown, NASA stuck to schedules to support its Commercial Crew program designed to return NASA to human spaceflight from Cape Canaveral. However, notably, the five week workflow interruption raises questions for execution of critical engine and system performance evaluations in anticipation of near-term unpiloted vehicle launches.
The sheer complexity of the final safety assessments, readiness reviews, and other required pre-flight activities for entirely new vehicles is a challenge to execute even under benign circumstances. With piloted missions slated as early as this spring, these shutdown workarounds add yet another unanticipated variable into NASA’s risk assessment.
While the impact of the shutdown on America’s commercial space companies can be downplayed as a temporary private sector casualty, the real impact is upon the ability of the United States to maintain its historical dominance in light of China’s challenge. As international space competition is on the rise, the shutdown only served to undermine long-term U.S. economic and national security objectives.