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The Lowdown on the Shutdown—and How We Press Ahead

January 30, 2019

At an agency Town Hall with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine front and center, followed by a NASA Johnson Space Center All Hands with Director Mark Geyer at the podium, agency leaders spoke with team members on a variety of topics influenced by the longest government shutdown in American history. While the after effects continue to ripple through the workforce, impacts to spaceflight, programs and launch dates will take some time to be fully understood.

Some key takeaways from the meetings:

It’s personal

“NASA is now open, and we’re very thankful for that,” Bridenstine said. “But it has been tough.”

The shutdown wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for the Johnson family. Far from it. The nuances between federal employees versus contractors, who could work and who could not, made it obvious that everyone’s shutdown story would be highly personal.  

Adding to the stress is that while the shutdown gives the appearance of being over, the hardship associated with it, for many, is not.

Geyer noted that when returning to work, many deadlines set before the furlough had been missed. It will take time to get back to normal. And even with all that weighing on the team’s collective conscience, he assured All Hands attendees that he has our back on that, too. 

It’s all essential

Both Bridenstine and Geyer touched on how the shutdown can influence public perception of the space agency. After all, it sure looks like a lot of us are not that essential—despite our personal feelings on the matter.

“We have a ton of things, and they’re all important,” Geyer said. But the criteria for being considered excepted was much, much more stringent than that. “The only criteria that was justified is that the failure to come in to work would risk human life or property.” 

Geyer stated that if the public, perhaps, could understand narrowness of the criteria—they would think differently.

Geyer also expressed his sincere appreciation to the JSC employees whose work was "excepted" and worked the entire furlough.

Planning for uncertainty

This shutdown is technically over. (Cue the applause.) There, is however, an awful specter looming … of another.

“Two-thirds of government spending is on autopilot,” Bridenstine said, whose history as a former state representative for Oklahoma came in very handy when explaining how the appropriation process works behind the scenes. “Those programs have been authorized by law.”

However … NASA falls under that one third that isn’t funded automatically, and Congress and the president have three weeks to come to a consensus before this Continuing Resolution expires.

So while this wild ride may not be over, Geyer and the leadership team are preparing their own contingencies.

“We try to fund a bit into the future,” Geyer said. “We did that … and we were pretty successful. We’re taking that lesson and trying to forward fund contracts as much as we can.”

NASA is ramping up for a busy 2019

Bridenstine and Geyer both shared that the pace is picking up for NASA in 2019. Just in the near term, the agency is working with commercial partners to get demo flights underway so they can begin flying crews safely from American soil. The International Space Station is operating 365 days a year to conduct valuable investigations in space. Orion is continuing its path to the pad, with Gateway moving ahead in tandem. In just a matter of weeks, Geyer plans to reconvene an All Hands to talk more about where we are with the budding lunar program and how Johnson is building its support, in addition to updates on the center’s vision.

And while these spaceflight milestones are quickly approaching, Geyer indicated the importance of slowing down to participate in our agency’s significant commemorations and pause before the safe resumption of pursuing uncharted territory.

“January is traditionally a month where we gather our focus with remembrance and back-in-the-saddle events,” Geyer said.

The best things aren’t things at all

“Because of you in this room, NASA is still the best place to work in the federal government,” Bridenstine said in closing. “Thank you for sticking with us during this time.”

Geyer echoed the administrator’s optimism. “Thanks for everything you do,” he said to the full auditorium, though the list of people and organizations he called out for their amazing work during the shutdown was much longer than that. “I’m pretty encouraged. I think we’ll be alright in three weeks.”



Back in the Saddle

Jan. 31, 9 to 10 a.m.

Location: Teague Auditorium

Details: Jim Wetherbee—author, retired NASA astronaut and former JSC deputy director—will share his fascinating experiences in hazardous endeavors, including the recovery from the Texas City and Macondo incidents in the oil and gas industry and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle incidents.

Open House, Furlough Support

Jan. 31, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Location: Gilruth Destiny Ballroom

Details: The JSC Federal Credit Union, United Way and JSC Employee Assistance Program will be available to support employees impacted by the shutdown. The Houston Food Bank Mobile Pantry will also be present to aid families in need.

Day of Remembrance (rescheduled)

Feb. 7, 10 to 11 a.m.

Location: Astronaut Tree Grove

Details: NASA will commemorate the men and women lost in the agency's space exploration program by celebrating their lives, their bravery and advancements in human spaceflight. All employees are encouraged to observe a moment of silence at their workplace or the Astronaut Tree Grove located behind/adjacent to Building 110 to remember our friends and colleagues.

At 10:15 a.m., we will honor the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia with a moment of silence in Astronaut Tree Grove. A T-38 flyover is planned for 10:16 a.m. over the center as tribute to the heroes who lost their lives serving our nation's great space program.

Johnson's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a fantastic resource if you are struggling and need extra support. Their office is open even during shutdowns, and furloughed employees are permitted to come on-site and use their services. For more, contact the EAP at 281-483-6130. 

Information is being updated continuously on the Return to Work Helpful Information link on the JSC home page, so check it as a resource for information on retroactive pay, IT support and answers to other important questions. 


Catherine Ragin Williams

NASA Johnson Space Center

JSC Director Mark Geyer addresses the workforce on Jan. 30 during the first All Hands of 2019. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz
JSC Director Mark Geyer addresses the workforce on Jan. 30 during the first All Hands of 2019. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz