NASA is shutting down production and testing of its future deep-space rocket and crew capsule in response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic. The two vehicles are critical pieces of NASA’s ambitious plan to return humans to the Moon by 2024, but with development temporarily suspended, meeting that deadline will become even more unlikely.
The shutdown comes amid NASA’s decision to heighten restrictions at two of the agency’s centers. The Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana and the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi are both moving to Stage 4 within NASA’s “Response Framework” for dealing with the pandemic, which is the strictest stage. That means telework is absolutely mandatory and all travel is suspended. The change was made after an employee at Stennis tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to a blog post by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. No one at Michoud has tested positive for the virus yet, but there is a rising number of cases near the center.
Both centers play critical roles in the development of NASA’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS. Cores of the rocket are primarily built at Michoud by NASA personnel and employees of Boeing, the vehicle’s main contractor. Meanwhile, the first completed core of the SLS is currently at Stennis, where it’s scheduled to undergo a significant ground test later this year. Called the Green Run Test, the exercise will ignite all of the engines on the rocket while it’s held down, simulating a launch without actually going to space. The test is meant to pave the way for the inaugural launch of the SLS, which is currently slated for 2021.
Now, with both centers restricting access, the production of new SLS cores and the work needed to prepare for the Green Run Test is coming to a halt. “The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume,” Bridenstine wrote in his update. “Once this is complete, personnel allowed onsite will be limited to those needed to protect life and critical infrastructure.” NASA is reassessing which personnel will be considered “mission critical” and allowed on site at each facility.
The shutdown is another blow for the SLS program, which suffered from delays and cost overruns long before the pandemic began. Originally slated for launch in 2017, the rocket’s first flight won’t happen until late next year at the earliest, and its first flight with crew on board is currently planned for either 2022 or 2023. The program’s budget has ballooned over the last decade as well, with the total development cost expected to reach $18.3 billion by the time rocket flies, according to a recent report from NASA’s Inspector General.
Despite all this trouble, the SLS is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program to land the first woman on the Moon. The vehicle’s third flight is meant to carry astronauts on that historic mission to the lunar surface. Given the 2024 deadline set by the Trump administration, there was already very little wiggle room with the current SLS schedule to meet that timeframe. A shutdown like this puts that goal in jeopardy — something NASA acknowledges.
“We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce,” Bridenstine wrote.
The other critical piece of hardware needed for the Artemis program is the Orion crew capsule, which the astronauts will ride inside when launching on top of the SLS. The Orion capsule that will fly on the debut flight of the SLS just underwent testing in Ohio and is about to travel to Cape Canaveral, Florida, ahead of the launch next year. It now seems that once Orion makes it to Florida, work on that vehicle will shut down temporarily. Meanwhile, work on future Orion crew capsules will stop at Michoud.
With this latest move, three of NASA’s centers are at Stage 4, along with Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The rest are at Stage 3, which allows mission-essential personnel to access NASA centers and travel. As the novel coronavirus situation worsens, it likely won’t be long until all of the centers move to Stage 4. It’s unclear how that will impact the rest of NASA’s activities, such as launches out of Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston maintains that its flight controllers can continue to operate the International Space Station even at Stage 4.
“I will continue to say, so none of us forget – there is no team better prepared for doing hard things,” Bridenstine wrote in his post. “Take care of yourself, your family, and your NASA team.”