NASA Looking to “Vector” Its Expertise to Fight COVID-19, Gets $60 Million in Senate Stimulus Bill

NASA Looking to “Vector” Its Expertise to Fight COVID-19, Gets $60 Million in Senate Stimulus Bill

NASA is looking at ways to “vector” its expertise to assist in the fight to end the coronavirus pandemic.  Ideas include assisting companies building ventilators, making masks and other clean-room equipment available to the medical community, and creating a “NASA at Work” challenge where anyone in the agency can offer ideas on where NASA can help.  Meanwhile, the Senate passed its stimulus package just before midnight. It includes $60 million for NASA.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, and Chief Health and Medical Officer Dr. J.D. Polk answered pre-submitted questions from NASA employees today via teleconference.  Each of them, and NASA Associate Administrator for Communications Bettina Inclán who moderated the discussion, appeared to be webcasting from their homes.

NASA officials participate in a teleconference answering pre-submitted questions from employees on COVID-19: Bettina Inclán (top left), Dr. J.D. Polk (top right), Steve Jurczyk (bottom left), Jim Bridenstine (bottom right). March 25, 2020.

At the top of the list of questions was whether NASA could use its engineering skills to manufacture much-needed ventilators for hospitals around the country.

Jurczyk said the agency is coordinating with the rest of the government on providing assistance to state and local governments, the healthcare sector and industry in general.  Specifically regarding ventilators, Polk said NASA will be participating in a “national call” tomorrow with other departments and agencies to figure out “where we can vector that expertise” maybe not by building ventilators, but by helping companies that already manufacture them do it better by building ventilators that can treat multiple patients or using 3D printing to make parts that are in short supply.

Asked if NASA had clean room gear, like masks or gloves, that it could provide to healthcare workers, Polk said NASA procures those items on a just-in-time basis.  The agency does not have a “massive stockpile” and still needs them for Mars 2020 and other programs, but is looking to see if they have anything they can spare and determining how, legally, it could be donated.

Jurczyk also said NASA is creating a “NASA at Work” internal challenge for everyone in the agency.  The Space Technology Mission Directorate, Johnson Space Center and Polk will identify areas where they think NASA could best contribute to the fight against COVID-19 and solicit ideas from across the agency on how to address them.

Another question was whether NASA contractors will be paid, as well as civil servants.  Bridenstine replied that the agency wants to make that happen and is scouring each contract to find ways to do that.  For example, contractors who work at NASA facilities that are closed can be paid because they are denied access to their worksite.  For those who do not work at NASA facilities, other provisions may apply.  NASA sent a letter to its contractor community yesterday providing guidance on how it is proceeding on that front.  He added that the legislation pending in Congress may also have provisions that will help.

Bridenstine’s message again and again is that the safety of the NASA workforce — civil servants and contractors — is his top priority and no one should do anything they feel is unsafe. If they are concerned, they should talk to their supervisor knowing he will back them up.  All of NASA is on mandatory telework already except for mission-essential personnel.

He projected optimism.

“We are going to get past this. There’s going to come a day when we are on the back side of the coronavirus curve.  … We need to make sure that we are thinking about a future that is bright, a future where NASA is doing stunning achievements that inspire not just the nation, but the world. … Let’s not get caught up in these times that seem dark. … We’re not out of the woods, but there is a day coming when we will be.  And it’s going to be a good day.” — Jim Bridenstine

Just before midnight, the Senate passed the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package by a vote of 96-0.  One portion of the package is a $340 billion supplemental appropriations that includes $60 million for NASA “for operational adjustments associated with mission delays” caused by the closing of NASA facilities because of COVID-19.

As Bridenstine mentioned, it also has a provision that could help NASA pay contractors during this period.  Section 3610 applies to federal agencies generally, not just NASA, and allows them to reimburse contractors through the end of the fiscal year “not to exceed an average of 40 hours per week any paid leave, including sick leave, a contractor provides to keep its employees or subcontractors in a ready state, including to protect the life and safety of government and contractor personnel” if they cannot work at a closed or otherwise restricted government site or cannot telework because their jobs cannot be performed remotely.

It now must pass the House.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the PBS NewsHour this evening that she knows there is some opposition “on the Republican side for sure, maybe on the Democratic side” and does not expect it to pass by unanimous consent — a quick way of passing legislation that would not require all House members to return.  She hinted that it may be possible to use some other method, such as not having a recorded vote or using proxies so at least some members would not have to travel.  It will not be remote voting, however, which has technical and legal hurdles to overcome.  Exactly how and when the House will proceed hopefully will become clear soon.  President Trump has said he will sign the measure.


This article has been updated.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.