SpaceX Assessing Impacts of Government Shutdown on Commercial Launches

SpaceX Assessing Impacts of Government Shutdown on Commercial Launches

As the partial government shutdown hits the 20 day mark with no end in sight, SpaceX said today that it is assessing the impact on its commercial launches.  SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted over the weekend that the first test launch of its Crew Dragon system was “about a month away,” a slip of several weeks.  NASA confirmed today that the new date is targeted for “February.”

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to build the Crew Dragon/Falcon 9 commercial crew space transportation system to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The first launch is an uncrewed test flight, Demo-1.  In November, NASA announced a January 7 launch date, but that slipped to January 17. On Saturday, Musk tweeted photos of the Crew Dragon mated to its Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX leases from NASA.  He said the launch was “about a month away,” which put it in early February.

SpaceX Demo-1 Crew Dragon mated to Falcon 9 rocket at LC-39A with astronaut walkway. Credit: SpaceX, Jan. 2019

NASA is one of the agencies affected by the partial government shutdown that began after a Continuing Resolution (CR) expired on December 21 and Congress failed to pass a new appropriations measure.  NASA personnel must approve of the launch based on testing and joint reviews with SpaceX.

Today, NASA posted the following update:

NASA and SpaceX are continuing to work on the activities leading toward the Demo-1, uncrewed flight test to the International Space Station. NASA and SpaceX are now targeting no earlier than February for the launch of Demo-1 to complete hardware testing and joint reviews. NASA and SpaceX will confirm a new target date after coordination with the Eastern Range and the International Space Station Program. — NASA Commercial Crew Program

Asked whether the shutdown was fully or partially responsible for the delays, SpaceX spokeswoman Eva Behrend told today that “SpaceX is assessing any impacts of the partial government shutdown to our commercial launches. NASA continues to support Commercial Crew Program operations as we move toward our first demonstration mission of Crew Dragon next month.”

When NASA announced the January 7 launch date, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine cautioned that it was set primarily to allow foreign journalists to begin the process of getting approved to travel to the launch.  He listed a number of reasons it might be delayed in a tweet: “There are reviews in Dec to decide configuration, waivers and date. Intl partners, the range, and ISS availability could also impact schedule.”  Later that month, during a meeting with reporters, he called January 7 a “very low probability date,” adding he was confident it would take place “in the first half of 2019.”

Both his comments were made in November, long before there was any inkling of a weeks-long government shutdown that might also contribute to delays.  When all is said and done, it may be difficult to extract how much of the delay was related to the shutdown specifically.  Both the NASA and SpaceX statements say NASA continues to work on the mission.

Those NASA personnel must be designated as “excepted” employees who are required to work, without pay, during a shutdown.  Individuals who are not excepted are prohibited from working and also do not get paid.  The expectation is that they will be paid eventually once the shutdown is over, but that does not help in the meantime.

Seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills for FY2019 have not been enacted, including the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA.  All the departments and agencies funded by those bills are shut down except for essential operations until Congress and President Trump reach agreement on funding for Trump’s border wall.

Six of the seven bills, including CJS, have nothing to do with border security.  House Democrats passed a bill last week (H.R. 21)  combining those six and funding them through the end of FY2019, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to take them up because Trump will not sign them. The strategy appears to be to increase leverage by making the shutdown as disruptive as possible, although DOD and other big spenders already have their FY2019 appropriations.  The shutdown affects approximately 25 percent of the government based on their share of discretionary spending. One of the unfunded departments is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  That is where the money for a border wall or fence or security resides.  It is the seventh appropriations bill in limbo.  House Democrats passed a CR to fund DHS through February 8, but McConnell is also refusing to bring that bill to the floor for a vote.

The House is now considering four of the six appropriations bill that are combined into H.R. 21 one at time in the hope the Senate will take them up piecemeal, but there is no indication it will.  The CJS bill is not among those four because it had not even passed the House or Senate by the end of the 115th Congress (the other four did).  Under the circumstances, it seems unlikely NASA will get its funding soon.

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