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NASA workers relieved at temporary shutdown deal

January 25, 2019

About 2,800 workers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston learned Friday that they would soon return to work for the first time in a month. But Holly Griffith, a safety engineer at Johnson, took the news with a little unease.

She’s excited to go back to work, she said, but worries that it could be temporary. President Trump agreed to sign legislation reopening the government for three weeks, but warned he might shut down federal agencies again unless he gets funds for a wall at the U.S.-Mexican border.

“I am skeptical about the three-week thing,” Griffith said. “I wish we had something more solid than just that we are going to reopen for three weeks. What’s after that?”

Griffith works on Orion, the spacecraft being built to take humans back to the moon, and she’s worried it will be impossible to catch up on a month-long hiatus from work, thereby delaying the project even further. The program already has experienced significant setbacks in its quest to take humans back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“Going back to work … will be difficult, too, because you can’t just pick up where you left off,” she said. “You have to get everything restarted and then at the end of three weeks you might have to shut it down again.”

Johnson is home to the nation’s astronaut corps, where human space flight research and training take place. It also is home to the International Space Station’s mission operations and the Orion program. Only about 200 federal employees kept working during the shutdown to keep the astronauts on the space station safe, though they were not getting paid.

The shutdown lasted so long, those working without pay were asked to clean bathrooms because the custodial staff was cut in half as the shutdown dragged on. If the shutdown had lasted through next week, the entire custodial staff would have been furloughed.

Byron Williams, Houston-area labor representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said Friday he’s “elated” that the shutdown has come to an end, even if only temporarily. Williams represents about 200 contractors at Johnson, including the custodial staff.

“It’s a pretty good day today,” Williams said. “I’m just elated that our members and employees are able to go on with their lives and their craft and be able to provide for their families … They’ll be able to return to work and do what every American wants to do: provide for their families and make a wage.”

He remains concerned, however, about the brevity of the government’s revival.

“As the days pass, we get more uneasy as it comes closer to (Feb.) 15,” he said.

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