Skip to main content

Shutdown a huge waste and cost to science

By Meg Urry, Special to CNN
October 4, 2013 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed. The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed.
HIDE CAPTION
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Government shutdown affects NASA, where employees are off the job
  • Meg Urry: A two-week shutdown could waste $3 million to $8 million of taxpayer money
  • She says loss to science is greater as critical astronomical work could be affected
  • Urry: NASA scientists can't do their work and must make up for it when shutdown ends

Editor's note: Meg Urry is the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

(CNN) -- The world-famous Hubble Space Telescope is owned by the U.S. government and operated cooperatively by NASA and an institute under contract to NASA. Now that the government has shut down, the institute can still use existing resources to continue Hubble operations for as long as possible. Its staff has tried to ensure that -- to the extent possible -- the shutdown will not affect telescope operations.

But events can overtake plans. If Hubble encounters a problem or a glitch, as happens occasionally, science operations will be suspended and the spacecraft will be locked into safe mode until government employees can issue spacecraft commands to restore operations.

Safe mode means orienting the delicate instruments away from the sun while keeping the solar panels illuminated, to make sure no instrument loses power and is ruined. But in safe mode, the instruments won't record any of the light coming to the telescope.

Meg Urry
Meg Urry

The approximate cost of one hour of Hubble observing is somewhere between $8,000 and $25,000, depending on whether one adds the costs of operating and refurbishing the facility to its initial construction costs. That means a two-week government shutdown could waste $3 million, $5 million, even $8 million of taxpayer investment.

Frankly, the loss to science is far greater. Each year thousands of astronomers from around the world compete to decide where Hubble will point -- toward particular stars or planets or galaxies or gravitational lenses. Special science panels spend weeks setting priorities for the most important proposed science investigations. For every 10 hours of observing time astronomers want to use, only 1 hour is eventually approved.

U.S. shutdown threatens launch of NASA's next mission to Mars

That means each week the government is shut down could cost dozens to hundreds of critical astronomical observations.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor, is undergoing critical tests at the Goddard Space Flight Center. This has to be done at extremely cold temperatures, mimicking conditions in space, and the amount of time to cool the system down is one of the drivers of schedule and therefore cost.

As long as the government remains shut down, the testing will have to wait. If the shutdown lasts more than a few weeks, the JWST instrument module will have to be warmed up, probably pushing the launch date forward by a few months and raising the cost commensurately (about $1 million per day).

NASA operates dozens of scientific spacecraft. A few look out at the cosmos, like Hubble. Many monitor the sun and the particle environment around Earth. Such observations have provided early warning of major sunstorms (known by solar scientists as "coronal mass ejections") that can knock out communications satellites and other fragile electronics.

Obama blames 'reckless' shutdown on GOP
Government shutdown vs. debt ceiling
Will there be compromise?
Furloughed employee fears going into debt

To check on the number of satellites that might be affected by the shutdown, this author tried to access a NASA website, only to see the following message: "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret the inconvenience."

This prompted further searching. The main NASA website defaults to the same error message. The education and outreach pages maintained by astronomers at the Goddard Space Flight Center -- and read by schoolchildren across the country -- are not accessible.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, because it is run under contract to NASA, still has a visible website. Their flagship mission, the Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity Rover, is apparently still active, operated by team members who work for JPL or Caltech or other participating institutions other than the federal government.

But as for Hubble, if there is any kind of glitch, federal civil servants will be essential to the recovery of rover operations.

NASA grounded by government shutdown

The work doesn't disappear, either. Scientists at NASA and the National Science Foundation are some of the hardest working people I know. The government shutdown means they are forbidden to do any work. They can't take their laptops home or phone into teleconferences from home, the way I might if a hurricane or snowstorm threatened Yale.

So, you might think they are having a nice (though unpaid) vacation. But actually, the same work is sitting on their desk when they get back, and it all has to get done. So it means they'll work longer hours to catch up and for most civil servant scientists, there is no such thing as overtime pay.

A NASA colleague at the Goddard Space Flight Center is designing a powerful new telescope. For the past few weeks, we've had intensive discussions with colleagues around the world about the science this telescope will be able to do.

Now, there is radio silence. His last e-mail said, "This is going to be my last e-mail before the government shutdown ends. Any work during a shutdown is deemed a violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act. You are welcome to continue to e-mail me, but I might not be able to respond until the federal government opens for business."

We are all waiting.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Meg Urry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT