Skip to main content

NASA is suspending development of its future deep-space rocket during coronavirus pandemic

NASA is suspending development of its future deep-space rocket during coronavirus pandemic

/

Two NASA centers are heightening restrictions

Share this story

The first completed core of the Space Launch System en route to Stennis Space Center.
The first completed core of the Space Launch System en route to Stennis Space Center.
Image: NASA

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.

Michoud and Stennis are both moving to Stage 4

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 first completed SLS core installed in a test stand at Stennis Space Center.
The first completed SLS core installed in a test stand at Stennis Space Center.
Image: NASA

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.”

“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.”

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 32 minutes ago Striking out

A
Youtube
Andrew Webster32 minutes ago
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.


A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterTwo hours ago
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


A
Andrew Webster1:05 PM UTC
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.


A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


A
External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.


A
External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.


E
TikTok
Spain’s Transports Urbans de Sabadell has La Bussí.

Once again, the US has fallen behind in transportation — call it the Bussí gap. A hole in our infrastructure, if you will.


J
External Link
Jay PetersSep 23
Doing more with less (extravagant holiday parties).

Sundar Pichai addressed employees’ questions about Google’s spending changes at an all-hands this week, according to CNBC.

“Maybe you were planning on hiring six more people but maybe you are going to have to do with four and how are you going to make that happen?” Pichai sent a memo to workers in July about a hiring slowdown.

In the all-hands, Google’s head of finance also asked staff to try not to go “over the top” for holiday parties.


E
External Link
Insiders made the most money off of Helium’s “People’s Network.”

Remember Helium, which was touted by The New York Times in an article entitled “Maybe There’s a Use for Crypto After All?” Not only was the company misleading people about who used it — Salesforce and Lime weren’t using it, despite what Helium said on its site — Helium disproportionately enriched insiders, Forbes reports.


J
Youtube
James VincentSep 23
Nvidia’s latest AI model generates endless 3D models.

Need to fill your video game, VR world, or project render with 3D chaff? Nvidia’s latest AI model could help. Trained on 2D images, it can churn out customizable 3D objects ready to import and tweak.

The model seems rudimentary (the renders aren’t amazing quality and seem limited in their variety), but generative AI models like this are only going to improve, speeding up work for all sorts of creative types.