How the Government Shutdown Disrupted SpaceX's Plans

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. NASA/AP

The government shutdown shows just how much budget fights in Washington could derail Elon Musk’s rocket ambitions.

For a few stressful days, the massive rocket that Elon Musk hopes will someday carry humans to the moon and Mars got caught in the crossfire of the government shutdown.

After Congress missed a deadline to keep the federal government funded and running Friday night, various facilities around the country started scaling down. When Monday rolled around, hundreds of thousands of employees stayed home. They included many of the staff members who support launch operations at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where SpaceX has been preparing for a very important milestone: The launch of the Falcon Heavy, a massive rocket that, if it doesn’t blow up on its maiden flight, will become the most powerful vehicle of its kind.

Without key staff on site, SpaceX had to pause preparations for a test of the Heavy’s engines, an important demonstration that determines whether the rocket is ready for launch.

“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,” John Taylor, the communications director for SpaceX, said in a statement Sunday night. “This shutdown impacts SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy demonstration.”

The last government shutdown, in 2013, lasted for 16 days. The prospects of a repeat seemed frightening. But this time, Congress resolved their differences—or at least, they resolved to resolve their differences another day—much quicker. On Monday, lawmakers voted on legislation that would buy them three more weeks to negotiate a budget deal. This means the government will soon reopen—and SpaceX can resume test preparations for the Falcon Heavy.

The shutdown contributed to existing delays for SpaceX at Cape Canaveral. At the start of the year, Musk said the Falcon Heavy would be ready for an engine demonstration, known as a static-fire test, by the second week of January. The rocket was indeed placed on the launchpad that week, but the test has been delayed each day since. “We’re stepping through this carefully, it’s a beast of a vehicle,” explained Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, earlier this month.

By last week, it became clear the maiden launch wouldn’t happen until February, maybe even March. SpaceX can’t set a target launch date for the heavy until they test-fire its engines—all 27 of them.

The three-day shutdown highlights just how far the effects of bickering in Washington can travel, and how much commercial companies like SpaceX depend on government agencies, even as they work to develop competing spaceflight technologies. (nasa is currently working on its own heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which would exceed the Falcon Heavy in power.)

The shutdown’s effect on SpaceX also serves as a reminder of how problematic it can be to view the relationship between the feds and private companies through the lens of a race, with “old space” (nasa, big federal contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing) in one lane and “new space” (feisty startups like SpaceX and Blue Origin) in the other. The pace of SpaceX’s achievements in the last few yearssuggests to some that commercial companies may someday take over the government’s role in human spaceflight, and perhaps could even do a better, cheaper job of it. But SpaceX needs nasa, and vice versa. nasa is both SpaceX’s biggest investor and biggest customer when it comes to cargo and crew transportation systems. As the last few days have shown, a disruption for one has big implications for the other.

It’s not yet clear how long it will take the 45th Space Wing, the unit of the U.S. Air Force that supports commercial launch operations at Kennedy Space Center, to return to full staffing levels so that SpaceX can get back to work. SpaceX will make its latest attempt at a static-fire test sometime this week.

If Congress doesn’t reach a deal on February 8, the federal government will again run out of money and shut down, forcing the same closures at Kennedy Space Center and elsewhere. If SpaceX wants to steer clear of more congressional sparring, it might want to take its shot for an engine test sometime in the next three weeks.