The government shutdown is NASA's worst birthday gift ever

The space agency turns 55 years old today. Don't expect cake.

NASA birthday cake
(Image credit: (CC by: Brian McNamara))

Today is NASA's 55th birthday. Sadly, very few of the agency's employees will be around to celebrate.

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The government shutdown is forcing around 800,000 federal employees to take furloughs. A variety of federal agencies and departments — from the Environmental Protection Agency to Department of Defense — are watching their ranks get hit hard by the failure of Washington lawmakers to pass a federal spending bill. (The rollout of ObamaCare, the ostensible cause of the partisan rift, was not affected).

No department, however, got hit as hard as NASA:

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Yes, a full 97 percent of NASA employees will be staying at home without pay until Congress ends the government shutdown. The only NASA employees working, more or less, are the six crew members floating up in the International Space Station and the people on Earth making sure they're okay, along with those responsible for the safe operation of satellites.

Other missions haven't been so lucky. The Mars rover Curiosity will be "put in a protective mode" for its own safety, but will otherwise stop collecting data. Wondering whether a dangerous asteroid is approaching our atmosphere? Tough luck.

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If the shutdown drags on, the Mars MAVEN mission could miss its Nov. 18 launch date — an event that can't be easily rescheduled, seeing as Earth and Mars are only in the right position once every 26 months.

That means NASA's $671 million mission — which is supposed to provide information about Mars' atmosphere, including whether it might have once supported life — could be delayed until 2016.

Scientists have already criticized the government for what they say is NASA's paltry funding. Astrophysicist and PBS personality Neil deGrasse Tyson has been especially vocal on the issue, calling for lawmakers to double the space agency's funding to 1 percent of the U.S. budget.

Now, 55 years after Congress passed legislation forming NASA, it looks like Washington dysfunction could set back the space agency's progress by weeks, months, and maybe even years.

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