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.

Advertisements

Furlough Journal: It’s starting to get serious

An update from my little corner of the partial government shutdown: it continues, but I’m just back.  This past week I’ve been on a vacation that was planned and approved well before the PGS began, but I haven’t missed a thing because late last week my employer, a company with a contract to provide certain services to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, told us it was fine for everyone to use accrued vacation time through October 11, and that if the shutdown continued we’d receive further instructions.  So while some of my colleagues who perform (apparently) essential tasks have been doing their regular work, and other folks have been getting paid for doing other tasks, albeit not from our government offices or using government equipment, I’ve been in a holiday frame of mind and oblivious to the impact of the inaction of our Congress to do its job.  Yesterday evening I checked back in and found those promised “further instructions.”  The tone has changed.

You see, on top of the 800,000 civil servants who were furloughed and aren’t being paid since the shutdown started October 1, part of the real fallout of non-essential elements of the government being shut down is that those government agencies don’t make their scheduled payments to their contractors, who as a result may not have funds available to keep paying their employees.

In our case, as a result of not receiving expected payments from the government our company advises us that as of now we cannot use our accrued vacation hours to keep getting paid; we can, however, take leave without pay.  (Oh goody.)  For those on our contract who are furloughed, the bosses advised them that they will stop accruing vacation as of the start of the new pay period next week and offered them instructions on how to apply for unemployment insurance payments.  Those of us who are (currently) not furloughed will continue to accrue vacation (that we can’t use yet) .  Health insurance benefits remain in effect for all.

But we’re not alone.  This morning Houston’s Leading Information Source offered this front-page localization of the government shutdown story: a prediction that the number of NASA contractors in Houston who are on furlough could triple by the end of next week if Congress doesn’t end the shutdown.  In this case at least—there may be other similar cases—the blame does not rest entirely on the members of Congress who failed to do the job we elected them to do; the bureaucratic mentality that runs our government is responsible for at least part of the pain:

Some of the pain could be eased if NASA paid contractors millions of dollars it owes them for completed work, Mitchell said. Just before payments were to be made to contractors, he said, Elizabeth Robinson, NASA chief financial officer, furloughed workers in the office where checks are written.

“There is no reason NASA can’t pay these small contractors the money due to them,” Mitchell said. “It’s in the bank, it’s due to them, and she’s not paying them because she considers people who pay bills for NASA non-essential.”

Some contractors are owed for as much as two months of work, he said.

Neither Robinson nor a NASA representative could be reached because of the shutdown.

Of course.

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 next time someone says space travel isn’t dangerous…

…suggest that they read this: Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s first person account of his most recent spacewalk, during which he nearly drowned inside his helmet.

…just as I’m thinking about how to uncoil the cable neatly (it is moving around like a thing possessed in the weightlessness), I ‘feel’ that something is wrong. The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me – and I’m in a place where I’d rather not be surprised. I move my head from side to side, confirming my first impression, and with superhuman effort I force myself to inform Houston of what I can feel, knowing that it could signal the end of this EVA.Luca-smiling-ESA

(snip)

At first, we’re both convinced that it must be drinking water from my flask that has leaked out through the straw, or else it’s sweat. But I think the liquid is too cold to be sweat, and more importantly, I can feel it increasing. I can’t see any liquid coming out of the drinking water valve either. When I inform Chris and Shane of this, we immediately receive the order to ‘terminate’ the sortie.

(snip)

As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realise that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose…

(snip)

I try to contact Chris and Shane: I listen as they talk to each other, but their voices are very faint now: I can hardly hear them and they can’t hear me. I’m alone. I frantically think of a plan. It’s vital that I get inside as quickly as possible. I know that if I stay where I am, Chris will come and get me, but how much time do I have? It’s impossible to know.

(snip)

Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers. The skills of our engineers and the technology surrounding us make things appear simple when they are not, and perhaps we forget this sometimes.

Better not to forget.

Recommended reading: an inside story of the loss of space shuttle Columbia

This week, January 16, is the 10th anniversary of the last launch of last launchspace shuttle Columbia. If you’re interested in knowing what happened at NASA leading up to that launch and what happened in Houston during the flight, read Wayne Hale’s Blog. Wayne is retired from NASA now after a 32-year career that saw him rise from flight controller to flight director to posts within the space shuttle program hierarchy and at NASA Headquarters, including Space Shuttle Program Manager after the loss of Columbia and her crew.

Start with his August 14, 2012 entry and read forward in time: he carefully and colorfully sets the stage, introduces the players and fills in shuttle program background; he doesn’t retreat into engineering jargon; he offers his recollections of the most difficult time in the professional lives of many of the people who make up America’s human spaceflight program and doesn’t spare himself from a close look. He writes of “The Tyranny of Requirements” and the warnings that were plainly there in the two previous flights (for any who could see them), of “Counting Down to Disaster” while “Working on the Wrong Problem.”

As someone who worked at Columbia crewNASA then and now, I’ve found his essays both moving and instructive; I don’t know where he’s going with the story exactly, but I’m eager to read each new installment. I can explain to you what happened to that vehicle as it rose to orbit 10 years ago, and what tore it apart and killed its crew as it came home 16 days later, but Wayne’s point of view on what led up to those events—what caused them, what was responsible—is unparalleled in its accessibility and honesty.

In 2002 I thought we were paying the right level of attention to the shuttle. I thought I was paying the right level of attention to the shuttle. I was a Flight Director. I was also a husband and a father and active in my community. I thought I could do it all.

I was wrong.

Later on, I will write about the MLK three day weekend that cost us a crew just because we took three days off. But how can you know in advance where the proper balance is between work and life when you work at extreme risk?


While I can’t cite specific studies, my observation of several major NASA projects that have gotten in trouble over the years shows a high correlation with new, added, late, or poorly defined requirements which caused technical issues, increased the costs, and delayed the schedule. Put simply, a good program manager has got to have the gumption to just say no to changes in requirements – even when they are really good ideas.


In the end, I am convinced that the “relentless budget reduction pressures” were a major cause of the Columbia accident that cost us a crew and an orbiter. Not the only cause, but a major cause.

So where do you draw that line, between prudent and acceptable expenses and extravagance? What do you do when you depend on a vehicle that just flat costs more to fly than you can afford?


The rest of the story is coming soon, but you can get caught up now: the story of space shuttle Columbia on  Wayne Hale’s Blog is worth the effort.