Furlough Journal: Once more into the breach

It never would have occurred to me when this partial government shutdown started more than four weeks ago that it would still be going on today, the day that it turns out is the day before I start on furlough myself because of the inaction of my government representatives obstinacy of my president.  (Lookie there, me being nice to Mr. Trump; let’s see if it lasts.)  Truth is, what really never would have occurred to me was that he would be the president.  Of the United States.  Of America.  Unless maybe it was bizarro America.

Nope, not even then.

I’ve worked as a contractor for NASA at the Johnson Space Center since the summer of 1995, just a few months before the Gingrich Shutdown that had been the longest shutdown in history until last week.  The only other serious shutdown in my experience was the one in October 2013, which sent us all home for a couple of weeks; we were allowed to do things related to our regular jobs, but we were not allowed to work in the office.  I started the Furlough Journal then and found it therapeutic for a guy forced to sit home on an unexpected vacation…yes, I was allowed to use my accrued vacation so I didn’t miss a paycheck.

When this PGS began my civil servant colleagues were sent home without pay and that’s where they’ve remained, except for a few who had permission to come in to do important work for which they would not be paid.  (Until, hopefully, they are reimbursed after the shutdown ends…which would be good for them, but doesn’t help them now with no income to spend on the little extras that make life worth living, like food, and rent, and electricity.)  At that point our contract had already received periodic funding in advance, so we were allowed to continue to do our regular work in our offices so long as it didn’t require a civil servant to participate.

Late last week the bosses gathered us all to let us know the advance funding was about to run out and our furlough was about to begin.  Since I don’t usually work weekends, and today was a funded holiday, tomorrow feels like the first day of furlough for me.  But my company is allowing us to use accrued vacation to keep getting paid, at least for a couple of weeks.  After that, we’ll see.

Let’s give the president a little credit here. After a full four weeks of government shutdown that was caused by him changing his mind and refusing to sign a funding extension passed by the Senate which he had promised to sign (and which the House has subsequently also approved) he made a counteroffer last weekend which Democrats have not embraced (shall we say).  I think “a little” is about as much credit as he should expect for offering to give back something he took away in the first place and which he isn’t now promising to return permanently, in exchange for a down payment on a wall that he promised us Mexico would be paying for anyway but which it says it won’t, and who can blame them.  I think we should also note that the president has proven over and over again that we should never take him at his word, about anything, which of course makes it harder to negotiate a deal and surely says it wouldn’t be smart to agree to the first thing he offers.

(Is the therapeutic-ness kicking in yet?  Keep keyboarding.)

I want the government shutdown to end as soon as possible, for myself and the hundreds of thousands of people who do work that makes our country run…no doubt you’ve got examples of your own of things that aren’t happening because of the shutdown, or have read stories filled with those particulars.  Our representatives in Washington can do their jobs and negotiate about a border wall while the people who process tax returns and staff the national parks and control our air traffic and advance our exploration of space get paid for doing their jobs.  I have confidence that Congress can find a deal that will allow all sides to claim a little victory, maybe even agree to build more border barrier.

But don’t you dare cave in to this crazy man.  If Congress gives Trump this border money, in this way, you and I both know that the next time he doesn’t get something he wants he’ll take hostages again.  We don’t negotiate with terrorists.  And we’re not afraid of bullies.

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To my cousin in New York, who today sent his best wishes to us in Houston

Hey kids,

It’s been very different.  We’ve all been through hurricanes before but this isn’t the same.  Everybody is fine right now, some still in town and some not, but everybody wants the rain to stop.

I’ve lost track of what’s going on in Rockport.  A Category 4 hurricane hit there less than three days ago and I saw video of terrible wind damage and lots of flooding, but that dissolved off my radar because of the rain right here; I hope they’re doing OK.  The good news is that there have been a few to several hours in a row with no rain, but it always comes back, more intense, and for hours at a time.  I read somewhere that the part of Texas that’s now underwater is about the size of the area between New York and Boston, and our new body of water is still getting bigger.  The most recent National Hurricane Center projection thinks we may still have another 36 hours of rain in front of us, as the center of the storm (which has moved back out over the Gulf) meanders eventually to the northeast and goes on shore between Galveston and the Louisiana state line.

When it was just rain it was annoying, but bearable…Ed even went to Mom’s house Saturday afternoon to install a new lock on her back door; later that afternoon an apparent tornado spun out of the thunderstorm bands and punched a hole in the roof of his house in Stafford (check his Facebook for a picture).  Kathy and Van tried to bring him a generator to use at his in-laws house next door, where the power was out, but high water got in their way.  Sunday morning it was worse, and by then Van’s parents were reporting water rising around their apartment in southwest Houston; Kathy told us that her in-laws had six inches of water in their apartment, and had talked to the Houston fire department about evacuation to a shelter.  Meanwhile, Ed got in touch with FEMA State Farm and it arranged hotel rooms a few miles away, where he and his family went after he and a neighbor installed one of those oh-so-fashionable tarps to cover the damaged area.  (Tip: they don’t keep all the water out, apparently…)

So far, no high water threatens at Elsie’s, or at Danny’s in Katy, or our house in Pearland (Kevin, in San Antonio, is even getting rained on by Harvey!), but the rain continues.  For example, they reported more than 24 inches of rain in Pearland in the first 48 hours of the “event,” which is about half of the total rainfall we get in a full year…same thing all over the area.  If you were lucky and the rain let up for a while the flooded areas could recede, but the next rain pumped ’em right back up.  Sunday night the local flood control authorities let everyone know they were planning to release water from two large dams on far the west side of town: even though that would put more flood water into the streams heading east into Houston and worsen things for everyone along the route of already-over-engorged Buffalo Bayou, it was necessary to make sure the dams didn’t fail which would cause an “uncontrolled release” that would make things even worse.

It’s not just the rain falling directly on our heads that’s responsible.  This storm has still been pulling moisture in from the Gulf and spreading it over hundreds and hundreds of miles, areas that for the most part drain toward and through the Houston area.  The rain falling a hundred miles away is running off into streams that feed other streams that feed into Houston, so there’s not as much room for our runoff and the local floodwaters can’t go down.  Some areas are coping, but places where the rain doesn’t let up are not.

Van’s parents never did get evacuated by the fire department, but he was able to get into Houston this morning and get them and bring them back to his house in Richmond.  But the Brazos River has been rising and rising, and areas of Richmond have been called to evacuate.  About noon today Kathy and Van’s neighborhood, where their daughter Karie and her husband and newborn also live, was put on the mandatory evacuation list.  They wisely decided to put the center of the storm in their rear view mirror and drive off; a little before 4:00 this afternoon my sister tweeted a greeting that only a Texan could really appreciate: “Made it to Bucees!!”  Ah yes, Luling and Buc-ees as ultimate refuge!

The Johnson Space Center has been closed to all but mission critical personnel since Sunday and will be again tomorrow, and since I am not even close to being mission critical I’m at home relaxing, trying not to stare constantly at the TV; Frances is here too but working, as her company fights the floods to keep their hospitals supplied.  The Astros won’t make it home as planned from Anaheim–their Tue-Wed-Thu series with the Rangers has been moved to St. Petersburg.  The Texans never got home from Saturday’s game in New Orleans, and they’ll play the last exhibition game against the Cowboys as a home game in Jerry World–proving that there’s always someone who has it worse than you do.

This is where you’d think to say something like “but I’m sure it’ll all be fine in the end” and that’s probably true; on the other hand, I always thought a “biblical flood” as just a figure of speech.

Thanks for thinking of us…

Pat

Furlough Journal: Here we go…out the door

I really didn’t need all this fuss to let me know that my job is “non-essential,” you know.

Since Congress couldn’t come to an agreement on a new government spending plan by the deadline last night, we have a partial government shutdown and that includes NASA and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where I work as a contractor in television production for the public affairs office.  Since we’re talking about the federal government, that means there’s bureaucratic silliness involved—we had to come to work this morning in order to be told we had four hours to complete an orderly shutdown and go home.  Ah, just enough time for me to change my voice mail greeting and turn off the TV!

When this happened in 1995 the contractor company for which I worked found something for us all to do, and we didn’t miss a day’s pay.  This time around, I am told, we are not on furlough—only the civil servants are—and we can work, but we cannot work in the government offices or use government equipment; we are also allowed to use vacation hours to avoid missing a paycheck.  I have more than a month’s worth of vacation available, so I’m reasonably confident.  Of course, if reason were to be trusted we wouldn’t have a partial government shutdown now, would we?  This conveys the feeling of some of the people at work this morning:

Khangress

The rest of us are a little less stressed.  I’m headed for lunch and then for the golf course…I could use some time off.

The gentleman from Pearland yields…

…for some great insight on yesterday’s topic.  First, Wayne Hale, a former NASA flight director and, among other things, a one-time manager of America’s Space Shuttle Program (the big boss!), who has retired from government service, is also a wonderful writer.  And he has a great post today on why Houston didn’t get a space shuttle—because Houston takes having the space program here for granted, and assumed it was in the bag.

…with the level of interest that our citizens and leaders have in JSC, I soon expect to see that facility in the hands of a different federal agency.  Soon the National Park Service will be leading tours through the historic – and empty – halls of the Johnson Space Center National Historic Site.

I have a suspicion Wayne is trying to stir the troops to action; good for Wayne.

Those same troops got a different message today from Kyle Herring, a NASA public affairs officer for more than 20 years.  He sent along a reminder that not having a shuttle come to live in Houston shouldn’t be the end of our love affair with the program.

These space shuttles will have ended their flying careers, but not their inspirational ones. That career will live on forever in places where so many people will see what we have lived for much of our adult lives and our careers. We now can allow those who aren’t really sure what we did to see what miracles of spaceflight the space shuttle orbiters really are.

(snip)

As we travel around the country in a year, two years, five, 10, 20, our paths will take us to these museums.Discovery on SLF We’ll pass through the doors of a hangar, or round the corner of a cavernous hall and suddenly look up and see Enterprise, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour representing our work, our commitment, our dedication. Our forearms will sprout bumps knowing that these spaceships are there because we protected them through years of flight in an environment not friendly to Earth-built machines.

(snip)

…when we are standing in one of the four locations each orbiter finds home, we can watch the visitors stand in awe of these remarkable spacecraft and tell them about the Space Shuttle Program. We can tell them about what it meant to support such a great vehicle. We can spread the meaning of space – and the space shuttle in particular – to them.

Houston, you are “go” to stop whining

Yes, it was disappointing that NASA decided not to retire a space shuttle to Houston.  But a “snub?”  That’s the default formulation here at home, the assumption that the intention behind yesterday’s announcement was “to treat [us] with contempt or neglect so as to humiliate or repress.”  Is no one ready to consider that, perhaps, the other places made better offers?  Even Houston’s Leading Information Source surprised with an un-hometown-ish editorial today: Houston, don’t take it for granted that we’re Space City; we have to work harder and smarter.

What, you say politics played a role in this decision, and a Congressional investigation is called for?  Why, I am shocked—shocked—to think that politics is involved in any way in the operations of an agency of the federal government.

NASA’s denial that politics influenced the decision is…probably a bit disingenuous.  I can believe that the bureaucrat who oversaw the collection and review of the applications did not have a political axe to grind when she made her recommendations; I can also believe that political considerations were taken into account farther up the food chain.  If you saw NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden making the announcement at the Kennedy Space Center yesterday, it was clear he was not happy about the words that were coming out of his mouth.

And sure, I can understand how, in the category of “close historical ties” to NASA, the New York City museum on board the USS Intrepid—which recovered the crews from one (1) Mercury mission and one (1) Gemini mission—clearly wins out over the facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which has trained every American astronaut who ever flew and has controlled every American manned spaceflight since Gemini 4.  No contest.

Sorry, guys, but anything beyond “oh golly isn’t that disappointing” is just being a sore loser.