NASA & SpaceX Soldier On Despite Coronavirus, Set May for Launch of Demo-2

NASA & SpaceX Soldier On Despite Coronavirus, Set May for Launch of Demo-2

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine reassured the agency’s workforce today that the coronavirus has not significantly impacted operations so far.  In fact, NASA and SpaceX formally set mid-to-late May as the timeframe for the launch of SpaceX’s crewed test flight to the International Space Station (ISS), Demo-2.  While that is a “no earlier than” window, it is a significant step for the commercial crew program and a sign of normalcy in such uncertain times.

In a blog post, Bridenstine said preparations continue for the Green Run test of the Space Launch System’s core stage at Stennis Space Center and the launch of the next Mars rover, Perseverance, both scheduled for this summer.  Work on the James Webb Space Telescope, the follow-on to the popular Hubble Space Telescope, also is moving forward.  That launch is targeted for March 2021.

His message was upbeat as the agency, the nation, and the world grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.  Bridenstine placed all NASA employees and contractors on mandatory telework yesterday except for those who are mission-critical.  The latter category presumably includes those working on the named programs.

SpaceX is still hard at work, too.  This morning it launched the next set of 60 satellites for its Starlink Internet broadband system.  The Falcon 9 rocket suffered a rare engine failure during the launch, but the other eight engines were sufficient to get the payload to the correct orbit.  SpaceX reuses its rockets and this was the fifth launch of that specific vehicle.  It will be the last because it also missed its landing on a drone ship at sea.

The launch was originally attempted on Monday, but aborted at T-0, the very moment before liftoff.  Musk tweeted today that Monday’s abort was due to slightly high power on an engine, but it is not yet clear if it was related to the engine failure today.  He acknowledged that the failure will have to be thoroughly investigated before the next launch.

Neither the coronavirus nor the engine anomaly deterred NASA and SpaceX from issuing a call to media for accreditation to cover SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission that will take two NASA astronauts to the ISS.  SpaceX is developing the Crew Dragon as a public private partnership with NASA and is required to conduct both an uncrewed and a crewed test flight as part of the certification process.  The uncrewed test, Demo-1, was completed one year ago.  A lot has happened since then, but a successful In-Flight Abort test in January paved the way for Demo-2.

SpaceX officials have been saying they hope to launch Demo-2 in May, but today’s announcement makes that more concrete.  NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly the mission.  CBS News reported today that they are already in a “quarantine bubble.”

The launch will take place from Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC’s) Launch Complex 39A.  At the moment, KSC and all the other NASA centers are at Stage 3 (except Ames Research Center, which is at Stage 4) of the agency’s Response Framework, which means mandatory telework for non-mission essential workers.  Hopefully that will be lifted before this launch takes place.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In the meantime, Bridenstine is urging the NASA workforce to follow the White House “15 Days to Slow the Spread” guidelines and recommended the NASA Kids’ Club website as well as NASA’s Youtube Channel as resources for those at home with young children.

While our progress as a team might be harder to visualize when teleworking from different locations, each of our individual efforts will, all together, propel our agency forward. I am confident NASA will emerge from this stronger and more unified as one team than ever before. — Jim Bridenstine

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