After six years of developing a new passenger spacecraft for NASA, SpaceX is finally on track to launch its very first crew to the International Space Station in mid-to-late May — but uncertainty surrounds the flight as the novel coronavirus pandemic worsens in the US. On Wednesday, NASA put out a call for press to cover the mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, but if current restrictions remain in place over the next couple of months, changes will likely need to be made as the mission proceeds.
Despite the pandemic, the mission itself is set to be historic. The last time astronauts launched to orbit from the United States was July 8th, 2011 — the last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle. Since then, NASA astronauts have relied on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to get to and from the International Space Station. Each seat on that vehicle costs the space agency more than $70 million. In order to move launches back to US soil, in 2014 NASA tasked two companies — Boeing and SpaceX — with developing private space capsules that can ferry astronauts to the ISS, part of an initiative called the Commercial Crew Program. Now, SpaceX is finally poised to launch its first human passengers on its new Crew Dragon vehicle, marking the first time a commercial vehicle has launched people to orbit.
NASA has been hyping this mission for years, but the timing is obviously unlucky. Companies and organizations across the US are telling employees to work from home, and NASA is no different. As of yesterday, all of NASA’s centers and facilities are requiring their employees to work from home, with an exception for personnel considered “mission-essential.” NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley has even more stringent restrictions since two of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, SpaceX employees have been told they should stay home if they’re feeling sick, though SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has downplayed the risks associated with the virus.
However, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says the agency is still moving ahead with important missions, including SpaceX’s trip, which will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS for a quick stay. But schedules are subject to change as the pandemic continues to worsen. One spaceport in South America has already suspended launches to protect its personnel and people living near the site.
“NASA is proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it evolves,” NASA said in a statement. “The agency will continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the agency’s chief health and medical officer and communicate any updates that may impact mission planning or media access, as they become available.”
Protocols are already in place to make sure astronauts are in peak health when they fly. Even before the pandemic began, NASA required all astronauts to go into quarantine two weeks ahead of their missions to orbit to ensure they don’t carry any unwanted illnesses with them to space. (There’s a full-body wipe-down before flight, too, according to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.)
With the astronauts heavily monitored before flight, things appear to be moving forward for the mission, but a lot could quickly change between now and the targeted launch in May. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear like the pandemic is going to get much better by May. In fact, researchers are predicting that the disease spread may not peak until late May or early June, according to a new report from Imperial College London.
That may mean that there will be few people able to visit Cape Canaveral, Florida, to witness the historic launch. Even if NASA and SpaceX have no problems moving forward with additional tests and processing for the mission and the launch goes ahead as planned, current social distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend against large gatherings. That would be a stark contrast to the large crowds that gathered to watch the last launch of the Space Shuttle in 2011.