HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, thanked NASA employees for enduring the furlough but told them at a town hall meeting broadcast today that there are still challenges ahead to get back to business.
"It has been tough. I want to say thank you for your patience," Bridenstine said.
He assured employees that NASA was operating at the highest level it could throughout the time the government was partially shut down.
"We did everything we could to preserve as much of the agency as possible during the shutdown that we could legally do during this time," he stated.
Despite the shutdown, communication for missions like the record-setting flyby of Ultima Thule went on as originally planned. Bridenstine said he worked hard to ensure the critical communication would happen.
"Because these missions had communication capabilities done by contractors, and in act the contractors had been pre-paid, we said, 'Let's let them do their job,'" he continued. "Flying by Ultima Thule was not a once in a lifetime opportunity. It's a once in humanity opportunity. So we thought it was important to make sure we turn the spigots on wherever possible, legally, to make sure we are communicating on these critically important missions."
One employee asked how NASA's public perception is affected, knowing the agency withstood a shutdown. Bridenstine acknowledged that more people need to realize just how important the agency is to the nation and to Americans.
"During the course of my time here, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that gets communicated. People need to understand that NASA is essential and critical," he added.
NASA employees are expected to start getting paychecks Wednesday and Thursday, but contractors aren't guaranteed pay for the time they missed during the shutdown.
"Remember that person sitting next to you who could be a contractor may or may not get retroactive pay. Every contract is different so we are working through that now. In the future, we'd like to standardize that more," he stated.
Experts said cyber security for the agency was mostly fully-functional during the shutdown. That's good news, because leaders said NASA is the most attacked agency (in terms of cyber security) in the federal government.
Renee P. Wynn, Chief Information Officer, said, "We got through this really well, but there is a lot of work that is backlogged that we will be pushing out to the user community." She asked for patience.
But not everyone in NASA, or contracted through NASA, returned to their work when the government reopened. Some employees left or were shifted around to other contract work. The agency is now assessing what that impact means.
"It is absolutely true that when we have a shutdown, we lose people. That in fact did happen. We didn't have a mass exodus. I think had this gone on longer, we would have. But we did lose people. Onesies and twosies across the agency and even here at headquarters," Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine acknowledged that it will take time to figure that out. "Things can't always be picked up right where they were left after a shutdown," he said.
"One day of shutdown does not equal one day of getting back into business. I think that's sometimes not understood," he said. "We did lose people on the contractor side. Certainly we lost people at NASA. And in some cases, these critically important people have to be replaced, which doesn't happen overnight especially when you're talking about the types of people that NASA hires.
NASA has a big year in 2019. Its theme for this year is "Keeping the Promise." As the agency prepares to celebrate man's first steps on the moon, its Space Launch System program here at NASA Marshall will prepare for greater exploration in the new year. Bridenstine showed the NASA team a video that listed other priorities like learning from new missions, improving space navigation, learning launching new science, and making sonic booms quieter.
"Keep the faith. We've got amazing things to do this year," he said.
As for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, leaders are still assessing the shutdown impact.
Officials there sent us this statement from NASA HQ about that effort:
“During the lapse of appropriations, NASA continued its important essential work including maintaining and operating the International Space Station, and protecting the lives of our astronauts, continuing critical scientific research, and ensuring safe operations across the agency. As we get back to normal procedures, it will take several weeks before we fully understand the impacts of the furlough. Once we have more data and information to share, we will communicate, as appropriate.”