The dim prospects of a swift end to the federal shutdown is leading to growing concern that NASA Ames will emerge from the feud as a shell of its former self.
Now four weeks in, the shutdown is putting increasing financial and professional strain on the local NASA workforce, and many are now talking out loud about the possibility of jumping ship. The shutdown, already considered the longest in U.S. history, will soon stretch into its second missed pay period. And it could go on much longer: U.S. political leaders seem no closer to resolving the budget impasse, and NASA employees are expressing doubts that the situation will be resolved for weeks or months.
"This doesn't bode well for NASA," said Lee Stone, vice president with the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers. "A large number of young people at NASA are exasperated and considering leaving for the private sector; and a large number of old folks are thinking of retiring early."
Those frustrations were on full display on Friday as the Ames Federal Employee Union held its second event to provide aid services for its members. Through the day, furloughed workers were handed $100 checks to help pay for basic needs, such as groceries or other expenses. In the afternoon, a group of about 80 Ames employees held a protest rally at the main entrance to Moffett Field to air their grievances.
The federal shutdown began on Dec. 21 due to a political impasse over a spending bill to fund most government operations. President Donald Trump has refused to sign the bill because he insists it must include $5.7 billion for a wall on the Mexico border.
NASA employees and contractors, some of who declined to be named, described the mounting anxiety that the shutdown could end up crippling the agency's scientific prowess for years to come. Career civil servants say furloughs are compounding the already grim cost of living in the Bay Area, and creating a situation in which NASA's ability to recruit and retain workers is in question.
For scientists at the nation's space agency, the work freeze has created concern that ongoing research projects will be lost. For example, special microbes that took months to cultivate for astrobiology research have reportedly died off because scientists are prohibited from providing the samples with feed stock. Meanwhile, space missions are being monitored by minimal staffing, with approximately 95 percent of NASA employees now furloughed. Last week, the main camera on the Hubble Space Telescope was malfunctioning for seven days before a skeleton crew was able to get it back online.
Misty Davies, NASA deputy project manager for systemwide safety, said she knew multiple graduate students whose research projects and dissertations are now at risk because they were reliant on data that is no longer being collected. Given this situation, younger scientists and engineers will find it hard to accept the sacrifices of working at NASA, she said.
"A lot of our talented folks, they've already found other jobs because they can't afford the loss of these paychecks," she said. "At this point, it's hard for us to justify what we consider meaningful work for the American taxpayer."
The experience was all too familiar for Matt Linton, a computer security engineer who left NASA in 2013 during a similar government shutdown that lasted about two weeks. At the time, "a major tech employer" in Mountain View called him up to offer a job with an 85 percent pay increase. Their pitch was simple: Sure, you love working at NASA, but we can actually pay you. With a mortgage on a Sunnyvale house and a newborn child, Linton said he couldn't find a way to say no.
"My wife asked me: 'You love working at NASA, but do you really love it that much?" he said. "I feel really bad for NASA. Their management tries so hard to do right by their employees and they agonize over our well-being. But this is out of their control."
Over recent days, Linton said he's received seven calls from NASA workers seeking new employment. Concern is mounting among NASA union representatives that more employees will be pushed to leave in the coming days as the situation remains unresolved.
"I'm worried this could cause permanent damage to NASA," said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who attended the Friday rally. "These scientists are already working for their country at a severe discount, but they can't be expected to work for free."