WASHINGTON (AP) — NASA may have the Right Stuff, but it's not essential.
In fact, of all the larger government agencies, NASA is sending the largest percentage home in the government shutdown because they are considered not essential. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which usually doesn't grab attention unless something goes wrong, has one of the highest percentage of workers considered essential and staying on.
In a city where being essential is considered as fundamental as breathing, the essential workers number is the real indicator of importance — politically and otherwise. It's the essential number on being essential.
"It tells you who has juice and who can protect their workers," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "It is an indicator of who is popular, who is homecoming queen, who is homecoming king and who is coming in last."
NASA comes up last. Only 3 percent of its workers are essential. The space agency doesn't have a launch scheduled until November. The space shuttle has been retired for a couple of years. The phrase "The Right Stuff" showing astronauts' can-do spirit dates to a movie and book that are at least 30 years old.
The space agency, which turned 55 on the day it essentially shut its doors, took seriously the threshold of only using workers protecting life or property, so "it doesn't mean (NASA) isn't important by any stretch," agency spokesman Bob Jacobs said Monday before he was deemed nonessential.
In general, about 60 percent of the 2.1 million federal workforce is still working during the shutdown. But some not-so-loved federal agencies can't even muster 10 percent on the essential meter. The Environmental Protection Agency, often a whipping boy for Republicans in Congress, has only 6 percent of its workers listed as essential. So does the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Ever the decimal counters, the Internal Revenue Service has only 9.3 percent working during the shutdown. On the low side of the essential ranking, you can find the departments of Education (10 percent), Treasury (18 percent), Interior (20 percent), and Labor (22 percent).
Even working in James Bond type agencies doesn't give you more juice than the people who deal with planes, trains and automobiles — or even tomatoes. About 30 percent of civilian workers in the nation's intelligence agencies are still working, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told Congress Wednesday. That's about the same as the Department of Agriculture, but nothing compared with the 67 percent of Department of Transportation workers are still on the job.
The Department of Homeland Security with 86 percent and Justice Department with 84 percent are in the homecoming court of the essential worker list. Then there's the VA, where 95 percent of employees are still on the job, and the Department of State. Unlike other agency, State Department officials don't have an official percentage for how many of their workers are essential, but said Wednesday essentially none of the 77,000 employees has been furloughed.
"You cannot close a VA hospital. You can't do it politically. You can't do it for the good of the patient," Light said. The whole essential ranking "is a little bit of 'Mean Girls' mixed in with 'The Right Stuff,'" Light said. "Only 'The Right Stuff' doesn't happen to be the space program."
Seth Borenstein can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears