The United Launch Alliance is on track to launch a communications satellite for the US Space Force out of Cape Canaveral, Florida this afternoon — the company’s first flight for the newly minted military branch. The flight is happening against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced other rocket companies to stand down from their missions to space.
For ULA, the pandemic has not stopped the company’s ability to move forward with launch preparations, though they did make some adjustments to protect their workers. In early March, before state governments started issuing lockdowns, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said that the company had issued new precautions in response to the outbreak, such as limiting how many people could be in meetings and eliminating all non-essential travel, according to Space News. However, travel associated with upcoming launches — such as traveling to launch sites — was considered essential, he said.
ULA confirmed that these policies are still in place and that the company has made it easier for employees to work from home. A “cross-functional team” is also monitoring the situation and following CDC guidelines, according to ULA. Meanwhile, the company is deep cleaning their facilities daily and quarantining personnel who may have been exposed to people with COVID-19.
ULA says it does not anticipate any delays in the future. “As for other launches or developments, we are not currently projecting any disruptions to our manifest,” a ULA spokesperson said in a statement. “ULA is working closely with our mission partners to navigate this unprecedented situation. We are working to ensure that we retain a fully functioning mission-essential capability to support our nation.”
While ULA is still able to launch, other US space companies are standing down or postponing missions as they start to feel the full weight of the pandemic. Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab announced it would delay its upcoming launch out of New Zealand next week in order “to protect the health of our team members, our families & the community.” Meanwhile, SpaceX’s upcoming launch of a Venezuelan satellite has been postponed indefinitely because of restrictions put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. It’s not just launch companies that are hurting. Bigelow Aerospace, which creates space habitats, laid off its entire workforce this week in order to comply with the Nevada governor’s order to close all non-essential businesses.
Things could change for ULA in the future, but for now, the company is ready to launch its workhorse Atlas V rocket. The vehicle is lofting the sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, or AEHF-6, for the Space Force. The satellite, headed to a high orbit above Earth 22,000 miles up, will join the five other AEHF satellites already in space that “provide global, survivable, protected communications capabilities for strategic command and tactical warfighters operating on ground, sea, and air platforms,” according to the company. ULA also launched all the other AEHF satellites.
Takeoff of ULA’s Atlas V is scheduled for 2:57PM ET out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and the company has a two-hour launch window to get the rocket in the air. ULA plans to provide live coverage of the launch starting at 2:37PM ET, so check back then to watch the Atlas V take flight.