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
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
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
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
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT