It’s not yet clear how long it will be until the coronavirus pandemic is contained in the United States and around the world.
The spread of COVID-19 has not yet reached its apex in the U.S., so we cannot know the full effect that the virus will have on America’s space agency or the greater space economy.
We do know how NASA and partner companies are being affected by the health pandemic so far, however, including spaceflight plans and facilities going offline.
NASA has a Response Framework in place to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. NASA Response Framework offers guidance for civil servants with four stages that can apply to individual NASA facilities.
This is the four stage response framework:
NASA defers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for international travel information, and the second and third stages reference mission essential travel restrictions. NASA defines such travel as this:
Work that must be performed to maintain mission/project operations or schedules AND cannot be performed remotely/virtually; OR work that has a justifiable impact on the safety of human life or the protection of property, AND there is a reasonable likelihood that the safety of human life or the protection of property would be compromised by a delay in the performance of the work.
When NASA facilities reach the fourth stage of the response framework, all travel including mission essential is suspended and facilities are closed with few exceptions.
The change at Stennis was made due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the community around the center, the number of self-isolation cases within our workforce there, and one confirmed case among our Stennis team. While there are no confirmed cases at Michoud, the facility is moving to Stage 4 due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the local area, in accordance with local and federal guidelines. […]
NASA will temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware. The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume. Once this is complete, personnel allowed onsite will be limited to those needed to protect life and critical infrastructure.
The South Louisiana and South Mississippi locations closing effectively halted work on the Core Stage of Space Launch System until each facility can re-open.
Since the statement on March 20, three more facilities have moved to Stage 4: Plum Brook Station and Glenn Research Center in Ohio, and Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.
As of March 24, additional facilities have reached Stage 4: Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Some facilities are closed based on government guidance, while others are at Stage 4 as a precaution due to known positive cases of COVID-19.
Goddard Space Flight Center, for example, reported its first case of an employee testing positive for COVID-19, Administrator Bridenstine announced.
Michoud Assembly Facility was already at Stage 4 as a precaution, and Stennis Space Center was closed after an employee tested positive. As of today, Michoud has reported its first positive case while a second Stennis employee has tested positive for the virus.
All other NASA facilities including NASA HQ in Washington D.C. and Kennedy Space Center in Florida remain at Stage 3 with mandatory telework in place. One KSC employee has tested positive for COVID-19, but the NASA administrator says Stage 4 isn’t necessary for Kennedy because the employee “had not been on site for over a week prior to symptoms” because the telework policy was in place.
As of March 24, half of NASA’s facilities are at Stage 4 while the other half are on high alert and remotely working with Stage 3.
Work on the James Webb Space Telescope in California is also paused, creating a new roadblock for the epic infrared observatory.
The Hubble Space Telescope successor, named after the NASA administrator who ran most of the Apollo program in the 60s, was most recently projected to launch between March and July 2021 before the virus stopped testing.
Even-number years including 2020 are launch windows from Earth to Mars, and for that reason NASA is prioritizing its Mars 2020 mission to send the recently named Perseverance Rover and Mars Helicopter to our neighboring planet.
As for NASA astronauts, work must continue — especially for Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston where flight controllers work with astronauts living on the International Space Station.
NASA has also commented on future astronaut missions currently scheduled for April and May, including the historic SpaceX launch for the Commercial Crew Program:
Astronaut training continues, as do preparations for the launch April 9 of NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts. NASA and its international and commercial partners always take steps to prevent the crew from bringing illnesses like the cold or flu to the International Space Station. As with all crewed launches, crews must stay in quarantine for two weeks before they launch. This process ensures that they aren’t sick or incubating an illness when they get to the space station and is called “health stabilization.”
Work also continues on the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, a critical element to maintaining safe operations on the International Space Station and a sustained U.S. presence on the orbiting laboratory. Commercial resupply activities and future missions also will go on as scheduled in order to keep the space station crew fully supplied and safe.
The space agency recently invited media to apply to attend the SpaceX Demo-2 flight test with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. The mission will mark “the return of human spaceflight launch capabilities to the United States and the first launch of American astronauts aboard an American rocket and spacecraft since the final space shuttle mission on July 8, 2011.”
NASA and SpaceX expect the mission to occur no earlier than mid-to-late May, although the agency acknowledges the health pandemic as a possible factor for launch timing.
One thing is certain: we don’t know the full reach of COVID-19, but all delays are worth limiting the spread of the virus as fast as possible.