NASA and the Coronavirus — Where Things Stand

NASA and the Coronavirus — Where Things Stand

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is difficult to overstate.  These are unprecedented times and the uncertainty can be demoralizing.  Against this backdrop, NASA is trying to move forward with its programs to explore the universe and understand the Earth mostly via telework, and with perseverance — the name aptly chosen for NASA’s latest Mars rover a few weeks ago.  The situation keeps changing, but here is a snapshot of where everything stands as of late evening March 23.

All of NASA’s field centers and other facilities around the country are at either Stage 3 or Stage 4 of NASA’s Response Framework.  The difference is who is allowed on site, with Stage 4 restricted only to personnel needed to maintain safety and security.  For Stage 3, those deemed mission-essential also are permitted.  Everyone else is teleworking.

As of March 23, the following Centers and facilities are at Stage 4:   Ames Research Center near San Francisco, CA;  Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, OH, and its Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, OH; the Goddard Institute of Space Studies, New York, NY; Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA; and Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, MS.

Following those guidelines and directives from state and local authorities restricting movement, work has been suspended on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft at Stennis and Michoud, as well as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that is in integration and testing at its prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, near Los Angeles.

SLS and Orion are being developed to take astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars.  The Orion spacecraft that will be used for the first test flight, Artemis I, just completed testing at Plum Brook and is being shipped back to Kennedy Space Center to get ready for the launch, which NASA hopes will take place next year.  No one will be aboard that flight.

NASA is still working on the detailed plans, or architecture, for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency if he wins reelection in the fall.   The head of NASA’s human exploration program, Doug Loverro, gave a brief update to a NASA advisory committee on March 13 indicating some significant changes to what was in planning a few months ago.

Many expected more details about the new architecture and an announcement of the winner(s) of the Human Landing System (HLS) competition to be revealed at a meeting of the White House National Space Council tomorrow, but it was postponed.  The Space Council is chaired by Vice President Pence, who is busy chairing the White House Coronavirus Task Force.  The White House did not say why, but it is easy to imagine he and other members of the Council are focused on the health and economic crisis facing the nation.

When the revised architecture and HLS awards will be revealed is unclear.  This evening a NASA spokesperson told that “we expect to be able to provide a public update on both of those topics in the next few weeks” and referenced the HLS solicitation, which, as of February 10, said the announcement would be in “late March or early April, 2020.”

Congress is also focused on the COVID-19 response and worried about the health of its members.  At least one in the Senate (Rand Paul) and two in the House (Mario Diaz-Balart and Ben McAdams) tested positive for the virus and others are in self-quarantine because they have been in contact with others who tested positive.  The Senate is currently in session trying to pass a third relief measure for those impacted by COVID-19.  A different bill was introduced in the House this evening (which includes $200 million for NASA to prepare for and respond to the coronavirus) as Democrats and Republicans try to find common ground.  When the House might return to Washington to vote on that or anything else is up in the air.

Both chambers are likely to finish work on that and depart the Capitol until the situation is resolved so as not to endanger themselves or staff.  What that means for NASA’s appropriations and authorization legislation is anyone’s guess.  At the moment, there is no mechanism for Congress to vote on legislation unless the members are physically present.  Much discussion is underway to determine if remote voting is feasible.   Certainly everyone hopes that COVID-19 will be tamed before the end of this fiscal year on September 30, by which time some sort of FY2021 appropriations bill must be enacted, but the usual cycle of congressional hearings already is disrupted.  Much of the work on any legislation is done behind the scenes and some of that can be accomplished through teleconferences, but as anyone who has interacted via teleconference knows, it is quite different from in-person negotiations.

NASA is asking for a 12 percent increase in FY2021 for the Artemis program, with more billions needed for the subsequent four years.  NASA estimates the cost of Artemis for FY2021-2025 at $71 billion.  With Congress getting ready to approve $2 trillion — trillion with a t — or more for COVID-19 relief, the prospects for such an investment may have dimmed.

Right now, though, NASA is continuing with the vast majority of its missions.  It has dozens of operational science spacecraft orbiting Earth or elsewhere in space, just announced the finalists for another round of Explorer missions, and quite a few in development, including Perseverance, the Mars 2020 rover.  It is at Kennedy Space Center for integration and testing in preparation for its July launch.

The worry is about those in development, where telework cannot get the job done.  The head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, summed up the situation in a briefing to the science community last week that applies across the board. “We know there will be impacts” throughout the agency, everything is in a state of “flux,” and “what we say today, tomorrow may not be appropriate because we’ve learned something new.”

So far work is continuing on Perseverance, but Zurbuchen has made it clear that if the team feels it is not safe to be at Kennedy, “even with tremendous heartache” the work will be suspended.  Spacecraft can be launched to Mars only every 26 months when the planets are properly aligned, so missing the launch window would be a great disappointment.

Meanwhile, however, astronauts are still at work aboard the International Space Station and a new crew is getting ready to launch on April 9.  Those preparations, in Russia and Kazakhstan, appear to be on track, if somewhat differently from typical launches as quarantine procedures are intensified.  Not only will the crew’s families not be allowed at the launch site, neither will the media.  In lieu of a press conference as they head from Star City, outside Moscow, to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the three men — NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Russia’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner — prepared a short video.

Cassidy, speaking in English, says “our hearts go out to all the people in the world that are dealing with this crisis. … We’re healthy, we’ve been tested very well with the medical teams, and we just are thinking with all the people in the world, we will be watching from space, and we are very curious to come home in October and see what the world looks like at that time.”

He is eager to greet NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken arriving on the crewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.  Less than a week ago, SpaceX and NASA announced they are anticipating mid-late May for that launch. Whether that date can be met depends on many factors, not the least of which is COVID-19.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine emphasizes again and again that the health and safety of the NASA workforce is his first priority, and while these may be uncertain times, “I will continue to say, so none of us forget – there is no team better prepared for doing hard things.”


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