SpaceX has been on the verge of test-firing its long-awaited Falcon Heavy rocket for weeks, but there’s a new kink in its plans. No, it’s not a mechanical issue with the rocket. It’s the intractable bureaucracy of the US government. After previously suggesting a government shutdown would not delay the Falcon Heavy project, SpaceX now says it won’t be able to test the rocket during a government shutdown. Even if the current impasse in Washington is solved, we’re not out of the budgetary woods just yet.
The Falcon Heavy is prepped for testing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. It’s currently perched on historic launch pad 39A as SpaceX attempts to prepare for a static test fire. SpaceX has its own mission control personnel, but the shutdown has affected many of the support staff it needs in the government to launch from KSC.
When the US government shuts down, personnel are split into two groups: essential and non-essential. The non-essential staff are furloughed, so they don’t show up to work and don’t get paid. Essential employees still have to show up for work, but they don’t get paid. Congress usually passes legislation to offer back pay to these individuals after the shutdown ends. However, too many members of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing are non-essential. If they aren’t at work, SpaceX can’t operate at KSC.
The 45th Space Wing is responsible for clearing airspace and making sure people on the ground remain out of harm’s way. This is necessary even for a static fire test, which involves igniting all 27 of the Falcon Heavy’s engines while the vehicle is held in place on the ground. This is a necessary step before an actual test launch, which SpaceX originally promised last year. At this rate, it might not make its new promise of launching in January.
In Washington, the US Congress failed to agree on a budget last week. That sent the government into shutdown mode late on Friday. As the week gets underway with many government offices closed, a bill is working its way through Capitol Hill that should extend the budget for three weeks. That just puts SpaceX (and Congress) in a similar bind come early February. If the company makes plans to launch the Falcon Heavy next month, it may end up unable to do so if the government shuts down again. Maybe SpaceX will just wait until a more permanent solution is in place before it makes any more promises.
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