Today’s Tidbits: April 7, 2020

Today’s Tidbits: April 7, 2020

Here are’s tidbits for April 7, 2020: Multi-month Demo-2 mission moves forward; GPS III launch postponed due to COVID-19; ESA satellite operations back on track; Ken Hodgkins retires from State Department.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

SpaceX Getting Ready for Multi-Month ISS Demo-2 Mission

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA and SpaceX continue to plan for a mid-late May launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 crewed test flight of the Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS).  SpaceX completed the uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in March 2019.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken (R) in front of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon at SpaceX Headquarters, Oct. 10, 2019 in Hawthorne, CA. Photo credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Demo-2 was originally planned as a short test flight of a week or so, but for the past several months rumors have circulated that it would become a longer duration mission.  Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew systems were supposed to be operational by now so Russia cut back production of its Soyuz spacecraft, the only way to ferry crews back and forth since the U.S. space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  Now there are only two instead of four Soyuz flights per year, reducing the ISS crew size to three instead of six until the U.S. systems are flying.

Last Friday, NASA and SpaceX conducted an “emergency egress” test to demonstrate that the crew and support teams could quickly leave the launch pad in case of an emergency by jumping into baskets and sliding down a wire reminiscent of a zip-line, but from a height of 265 feet.

That same day, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told CNBC’s Michael Sheetz  (and NASA later confirmed to that Demo-2 will be extended to a two-three month mission.  NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will return to Earth about a month before the first operational Crew Dragon flight (“Crew-1”) with four astronauts — three from NASA and one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) — arrives.

GPS III-3 Launch Postponed Due To COVID-19

Illustration of a GPS-III satellite (built by Lockheed Martin). Credit: Lockheed Martin website.

While NASA is trying to prevent COVID-19 from delaying Demo-2, the pandemic has postponed the launch of the third DOD Global Positioning Satellite III (GPS III-3).  The GPS constellation of 24 operational satellites plus spares is used globally for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services.  GPS III is the most recent system upgrade.

The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) said today that the launch of GPS III-3 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket now will be no earlier than June 30 instead of late April.  In a press release, it explained that the health of the GPS constellation allows for a “strategic pause” to focus on the health and safety of the workforce “without operational impact.”

Lt. Gen. John Thompson, SMC commander and program executive officer for space said the decision was not made lightly, but as “the COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to national security likewise, rescheduling the launch is in the interest of national security. … We have to get it right the first time, and protecting our people is just as important as cost, schedule, and performance.”

ESA Spacecraft Operations Back on Track

COVID-19 temporarily affected the European Space Agency (ESA’s) satellite operations, but they are back on track now.

European Space Operations Center (ESOC) main control room (2012), Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: European Space Agency.

ESA discontinued science operations of four missions (CLUSTER, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, Mars Express, and Solar Orbiter) to reduce the workload at its European Satellite Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.  The spacecraft were put into standby mode after a mission controller came down with the virus and he and colleagues he had been in contact with were sent home to prevent further spread.  He is recovering and his colleagues displayed no symptoms, so they are now back at work as are the spacecraft.

State Department’s Ken Hodgkins Retires

Kenneth Hodgkins.

Ken Hodgkins, who was Director of the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science for decades, retired on March 20.  Dave Turner, his deputy, is now leading the office.

His tenure at State covered a period of time when the United States increasingly sought out international partners for space activities like the International Space Station and a plethora of space science missions.  He was the U.S. representative to the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the point man at State for U.S. presidential policy reviews of remote sensing, GPS, space traffic management, space weather and a host of other issues.  The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) recognized his achievements twice, in 2010 and 2017, with its International Cooperation Award and the American Astronautical Society presented him with its Advancement of International Cooperation award.

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