October 8, 2013 - As the U.S. government shutdown grinds through its fourth day, science projects are falling like flies as they get starved of funds. And now, one of the most symbolic of scientific institutions has become the latest casualty of the political ineptitude on Capitol Hill.
Today, as of 7pm Eastern Time, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (site offline) will shut down all of its North American facilities. This includes the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) in New Mexico, plus the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Apart from a skeleton crew that will remain behind as security for the radio antennae, the vast majority of the NRAO's 475 employees will be laid off in an unpaid furlough.
The NRAO is funded by the National Science Foundation (site offline) and since the government shutdown on Oct. 1, the NRAO only had a week's worth of operating funds (left over from the last fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30) that sustained the organization through to today.
"We're really at a dead halt," NRAO Director Anthony Beasley told Science Insider.
Ripples of the shutdown are being felt at international radio telescopes too. The recently-completed Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, for example, is heavily funded by U.S. participation. Although the U.S. contingent has "some additional resources in the bank in Chile," according to Beasley, that will only last for another 3-4 weeks should the the deadlock in D.C. continue that long.
Critical systems are being maintained by around 90 employees who have to weather the funding storm. Cryogenically cooled electronics, for example, need to be maintained - simply switching off these systems would be prohibitively damaging and expensive. But if the shutdown pushes into November, the NRAO may not have enough reserves to pay for its electricity bills. "This is a very difficult situation," said Beasley.
Amid all the bad news, there are a couple of glimmers of hope for space, particularly the planetary sciences. The NASA Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, for example, remain up and running (for the time being) as the scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., are contractors managed by Caltech. Also, NASA's next Mars mission, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter, was granted an emergency exception under federal law to continue preparations for its Nov. 18 launch to the red planet. If preparations were suspended, and the mission missed its primary 20-day launch window, the launch could have been bumped to 2016. The new Mars orbiter is considered critical for continued and uninterrupted communications with NASA's surface missions.
But for the NRAO, there is little good news - North America is about to go "radio blind" and there's little anyone can do about it.
The radio observatories shut down will impact the science community severely. Several thousand scientists use the data from NRAO installations and hundreds of them, according to Beasley, are considered "heavy" users. The radio observatories study everything from star formation, galactic evolution to the origins of our Cosmos.
Of course, the government shutdown doesn't only affect radio observatories. All sciences that depend on government funds have been impacted; every facet of U.S. society has been hit and people are suffering as a result. Government employees have been furloughed and the public that depend on those services will have to do without. The nation's infrastructure and economy will be greatly affected.
In the pursuit of an idiotic ideology, a very small group of politicians (with no idea about what they are fighting for, let alone the consequences) has shut down our eyes on the Cosmos. This is a reckless act that isn't just a blip on the radar of knowledge; it will reverberate far beyond the shutdown - hurting science and the inquiring minds who investigate that science - long after the politicians decide to work for the U.S. people again.