Education

Government shutdown delayed $115 million University of Iowa contract

The shutdown 'threw all kinds of monkey wrenches into the game'

A team led by University of Iowa physicist Craig Kletzing has won a $1.25 million grant from NASA to conceptualize a mission that would study the mysterious, powerful interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth. (Courtesy NASA)
A team led by University of Iowa physicist Craig Kletzing has won a $1.25 million grant from NASA to conceptualize a mission that would study the mysterious, powerful interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth. (Courtesy NASA)
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IOWA CITY — Last week’s announcement of a $115 million NASA contract for University of Iowa-led research into the sun’s effect on space and Earth — the largest award in UI history — should have come sooner but was delayed by the longest-ever U.S. government shutdown, likely postponing the project’s launch.

The nine teams vying for the NASA funding — which the UI eventually won — were told selected projects would be underway and going by April, according to UI physicist Craig Kletzing.

“But that all fell apart with the whole shutdown,” he said.

He noted his work isn’t the only NASA research affected by the 35-day government disagreement, from Dec. 22 to Jan. 25.

“What people don’t understand about the shutdown, it’s not like you can just flip the switch and the lights all come back on again,” he said. “NASA has been working very very diligently to try to get caught up and back on track. But it’s clearly impacted things and pushed things downstream.”

Site visits for the nine proposals, including the UI-led project, were planned for January but had to be delayed to the end of February and March, according to Kletzing.

“Since it’s a competition kind of thing, and it involves significant money and so forth, they have to make sure they treat every team exactly the same,” he said. “So they had to wait until they knew that they could have the site visit review teams be able to travel.”

Kletzing and his team learned last week they were one of two projects chosen for the hefty contracts to study the sun’s interplay with space and Earth — potentially allowing better space weather prediction and protection of astronauts, technology and life on Earth.

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NASA set a launch date of no later than August 2022 for the UI-led mission — known as TRACERS, short for Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites — along with its partner project PUNCH, for Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere.

But Kletzing, leading the TRACERS project, said the lapse in federal funding stalled progress, likely bumping the satellite’s intended launch into orbit.

“The government shutdown threw all kinds of monkey wrenches into the game,” he said. “So that’s a discussion we’re going to have to have. Because one of the things we work on very carefully is the schedule. And the schedule has 1,500 elements, and it’s got everything mapped out from all these different little tasks.”

Projects require “slack” time to allow for adjustments and surprises.

“That’s one of the things we’ll have to negotiate with NASA is to make sure that the launch date keeps us with adequate slack,” Kletzing said. “If they actually selected when they had intended to a couple of months earlier, everything would have been fine.”

Guessing the launch date will shift into 2023, Kletzing said his team will debrief with NASA on funding and schedule issues in July.

The project — involving as many as 30 researchers and supporter personnel from Iowa — is expected to be in orbit at least two years.

“What we hope is everything is working great, we’re producing fantastic science, and then we’d be allowed to go to NASA and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you extend our mission because this is still a great couple of satellites and there is other great stuff we could do?’” Kletzing said.

That fantastic science TRACERS is pursuing involves interactions between magnetic fields of the sun and Earth and related openings through which solar wind reaches the Earth. If scientists find a way to better model and predict “space weather,” they could protect astronauts, build heartier satellites, and prevent costly damage.

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Power grids could receive notice of a solar flare, for example, and act accordingly. Companies could launch spare satellites only when necessary, saving money.

And engineers could craft stronger satellites — although not unnecessarily robust.

“Not only are you building tough enough satellites, but you can also build them not too tough, which costs extra money,” Kletzing said. “You can understand how to get the balance just right.”

The science could have far-reaching implications.

“People almost forget that every time you pull up Google maps, you are actually receiving signals from space,” he said.

The project’s implications for Iowa are broad, as well, according to professor Frederick Skiff, chairman of the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy. At a time of increasing competition for funding, tightening UI resources and some retirements — including UI space legend Don Gurnett — Skiff noted a lot of the UI’s researchers are paid by NASA grants and contracts.

“So these missions are a tremendous help,” he said.

The government shutdown paralyzed the salaries for some UI scientists and graduate students, according to Skiff.

“It was very stressful because suddenly we didn’t have any way to pay salaries for certain people,” he said. “And, you know, people need to eat.”

Skiff went to the UI vice president for research and asked for help. By looking throughout the department for projects needing engineers, Skiff managed to find places where they could continue working and be paid.

The shutdown also compelled a handful of UI researchers who were close to retirement to do so, according to Skiff.

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“And I was very pleased — a week ago — we were able to tell the college we don’t actually need bailouts,” he said. “We managed to find a way to do it all.”

The department solved its shutdown woes before last week’s $115 million NASA contract — the only one of more than 35,000 UI awards since 1965 to top $100 million. But Skiff said it provides some welcome security for a few years in a field requiring researchers to compete to get paid.

“This builds our team,” he said. “This keeps us in the game.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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