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NASA interns lose their space. (Different kind of space).

Ariana Tobin Oct 3, 2013

At least fifteen interns living at the NASA Ames Exchange Lodge in Mountain View, Calif., have spent the week preoccupied with concerns all-too earthbound: Where to go when the federal shutdown closed their campus dorms?

The closure rendered them not only jobless, but homeless to boot. 

The NASA Ames Exchange Lodge ­is government-owned and -operated, so with staff no longer on duty, the facility had to close its doors to residents from interns to Google techies and temporary workers on federal grants

NASA has earned the dubious distinction of “agency most affected by the shutdown,” with 97 percent of operations halted.

James Mishra, a University of Minnesota student who (usually) works with the Intelligence Robotics group, says rumors began floating last week, when higher-level staff began “gently reassuring” them that a shutdown was possible but unlikely.

“There was a movement somewhere in the administration to try and get the staff running our dorms to be considered essential personnel, but because essential personnel are so specific, as in, taking care of the astronauts at the space station, robots in space, things that would be destroyed if they were not monitored, it was a no,” Mishra said.

Sure enough, residents of the Lodge came back on Monday to find notices tacked to their doors: They had to be out by Tuesday at 11 a.m., at which point there would be no one around to even answer questions, let alone wait until they’d found a place to move.

A notice from the Ames Exchange Lodge. Telling residents to move out in the event of a shutdown.

Finding another place to live in Mountain View, Calif., in such a short time span, is no easy feat.

“There’s nowhere else to live around here. The base is very isolated. It’s hard to get pizza delivered out to the base,” said Katy Levinson, a former NASA intern and current Development Director of Hacker Dojo, a nearby community center for “science nerds.” She found out about the interns’ plight when Mishra hung a poster-plea on the center’s wall.

Mishra says many of the full-time NASA managers offered to house the displaced interns in their spare rooms, or to make calls on their behalf. Some are staying with relatives in the area, while others chose to drive or fly back to their home states.

“Although the couch of my boss was a nice offer, I thought it would be better for everyone involved if I found a place on my own,” Mishra said. “I know a Puerto Rican intern who said ‘if this lasts for more than two or three days, then he’s going to go back to Puerto Rico.”

Levinson and her colleagues at Hacker Dojo have been using their listservs to locate housing for all of the interns they can find. They’re also trying to match them up with temporary placements at tech start-ups eager for some temporary interns of their own.

“This is the weirdest game of Pokémon. We have to find the homeless nerds and catch them all,” Levinson said.

Even if the dorms reopen tomorrow, Levinson says the crowds at Hacker Dojo worry about longer-term ramifications on morale. Among the concentration of astrophysicists, chemists, and computer scientists around the base, the uncertainty of tenuous federal funding keeps the community on edge.

“[As it is] a lot of people decide it’s just not worth the anxiety and the low pay to work for the government, and go to work for private industry instead. So I think that the arrogance displayed here will cause us to lose a lot of future top scientists and engineers. If we’re lucky, they’ll go into the private sector. If we’re unlucky, they’ll leave period. This is what a brain drain looks like, essentially,” Levinson said. 

And would Mishra return to NASA? He says, yes: He’s put out, but not put off, by the shut down.

“It was just a shrug and a ‘this is how the government works,'” Mishra said. “A lot of people have the impression that the federal government is slow and inefficient, but we have many of the best scientists and engineers out there. And unless those scientists and engineers go somewhere else, I’m going to work with the government if I want to work with the best.”

Here’s a description of the Ames Lodge facility (cached, of course, because yes, the website has been furloughed too).

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