Science

US govt shutdown lobs spanner in SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch

Maiden flight faces delay as Congress squabbles over budgets

By Iain Thomson in San Francisco

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SpaceX's Falcon Heavy maiden launch, pencilled in for the end of this month, is set to be delayed due to the ongoing US government shutdown.

Since Friday night, all federal agencies have suspended non-essential work as congressfolk bicker over budget cuts, increases, and allocations. The Senate today inched closer to passing a bipartisan spending bill to continue funding operations, leaving it to the House and president to approve the legislation and restart the government.

In the meantime, NASA boffins and engineers are banned from working, as are Air Force staff, and that's derailed SpaceX's plans.

Elon's Musketeers are heavily dependent on America's space agency: they lease NASA's launch pads, and rely on considerable support from the public body's engineers and technical staff. They also work closely with the Air Force, which is, for the moment, on ice, too. With NASA and the Air Force effectively AWOL, SpaceX is stuck on its Jack Jones.

“We remain hopeful that the Congress will quickly resolve their differences and put our partners in the Air Force and NASA back to doing their important work as soon as possible," SpaceX told The Register in a statement on Monday.

"This shutdown impacts SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy demonstration, which is critical for future NSS missions. It also impacts critical missions for our customers, including important international allies scheduled to launch shortly from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base, as well as upcoming missions this spring to resupply the International Space Station."

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The heavily delayed Falcon Heavy, which will be the most powerful commercial rocket yet flown if it ever blasts off successfully, was due to fly at the end of the month. However, conducting essential pre-flight test burns of its motors will be impossible until the shutdown ends. This will set back the launch date significantly, since the rocket is already down at the NASA launch site in Florida, and shifting it back to a SpaceX facility to test would be impractical without blowing the launch schedule entirely.

Meanwhile, the US Air Force's 45th Space Wing is beginning to wind down operations on Monday due to the political paralysis. The group launches its own stuff, and provides telemetry and other services to SpaceX and NASA. For now, it can't.

"This day will be difficult on all of us, but know that I value all of you for the effort you make day in and day out," said Brigadier General Wayne Monteith. "We simply cannot accomplish our primary mission of assured access to space without our incredible civilian workforce. This challenging time should not divide but unite us."

It's possible that the chaos in Congress could be sorted soon, and government agencies continue functioning. It's now on the House of Representatives to get its act together to back the Senate, and the president to sign off on the spending bill. ®

Updated to add

The House has passed a stopgap spending bill. Now it's up to the president to sign off, and let the government reopen on Tuesday.

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