A NASA asteroid mission, which has remained on track for the mid-October deployment despite the pandemic’s interruptions, now faces a new obstacle: the potential of a federal government shutdown.
The Lucy spacecraft is now slated to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket from the Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the early morning hours of October 16. The $981 million project, which is part of NASA’s Discovery program, must release during a window that only lasts until November 7 in order to fly a challenging course to visit multiple Trojan asteroids that trail and lead Jupiter in its orbit around the sun.
Project officials confirmed during a September 28 briefing that launch preparations are on track. The spacecraft will be encased in its payload fairing as well as transported to Space Launch Complex 41’s Vertical Integration Facility, where it will be mounted atop its Atlas 5 rocket.
At the briefing, Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, who serves as the Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, remarked, “Things are going extremely quickly.”
Actions — or, more properly, a failure to act — 1,200 kilometers away from the launch site, on the other hand, might bring those efforts to a halt. The new fiscal year begins on October 1. Congress has yet to enact a continuing resolution, sometimes known as a CR, to support the government until full-year appropriations bills are passed. Some Republicans oppose a raise in the debt limit, which would be included in the CR and is essential to prevent a government default.
Suppose Congress does not enact a continuing resolution by October 1. In that case, the federal government was going to shut down for the very first time since a 5-week shutdown in December and January of last year. Federal employees would be furloughed, and non-essential government activity would be halted.
The International Space Station and other spacecraft would continue to operate in the case of a shutdown, according to NASA’s contingency plan, which was last revised on June 9. “Unfunded work on that project will normally be suspended if a satellite trip has not yet been launched,” the document adds.
Any pause in launch preparations might threaten the mission’s ability to launch within the three-week window, especially if it encounters other technical or meteorological issues. When asked about the impact of a shutdown, Lori Glaze, director in charge of NASA’s planetary research division, said, “We’re keeping a very close eye on what’s going on and hoping that we can obtain a continuing resolution to keep operating.”
According to Glaze, Lucy has acquired a reprieve to the shutdown guidelines, letting it complete launch preparations. “Space launch hardware practices, which are required to avert injury to life or property” is one of the types of excluded activities in NASA’s shutdown plan.