The coronavirus pandemic threw a pretty big curveball at the planners of SpaceX’s first crewed mission.
The liftoff will be a huge moment for SpaceX, NASA and the nation, marking the return of orbital human spaceflight to U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle fleet retired in 2011. (Suborbital human spaceflight is already back; Virgin Galactic has flown two piloted test missions to suborbital space in the past 18 months.)
Demo-2 will also be the first orbital crewed flight of a new American spacecraft since 1981, when the space shuttle debuted. So, preparations for the coming mission were always going to be intense and meticulous. But the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus has added another layer of complexity, for both NASA and SpaceX.
“We knew it was going to be tough getting ready for launch, but then in this new environment we had to take even more precautions,” Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a Demo-2 news conference on Friday (May 1). “Because it’s really about not only Bob and Doug’s safety, but it’s also about the safety of the crew aboard the International Space Station.”
NASA already quarantines ISS-bound astronauts shortly before liftoff as standard operating procedure, to reduce the chance that the newcomers will infect their fellow crewmembers with a nasty bug. But the agency ramped up its health and safety procedures considerably in response to the coronavirus threat, Lueders and other NASA officials said.
For example, the agency has minimized contact with Behnken and Hurley for weeks now, said Steve Stich, deputy manager of the Commercial Crew Program.
“They only come to certain training events where they really need to be present,” Stich said in a different news conference on Friday. “A lot of training events are done virtually, and then the number of people at a particular training event is dramatically minimized.”
The people who do come into contact with the two astronauts wear masks and gloves and “are screened from a health perspective,” Stich added.
Extra precautions will be taken on launch day as well with all of the teams supporting the mission, he said. For example, NASA has rearranged the layout of control rooms at the launch site, the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, to ensure that workers there will be able to maintain 6 feet (1.8 meters) of distance from each other.
Those workers will have masks and easy access to hand sanitizer, Stich added. And the various rooms are being kept meticulously clean and sanitized.
The NASA teams also incorporate these precautions into their launch-simulation exercises. One such exercise occurred in mid-April and another will be conducted on Monday (May 4), Stich said.
“So far, it’s worked well, and we don’t really see any impacts on how we’re going to operate on launch day, or rendezvous day, or any other part of the flight,” he said.
SpaceX has been similarly conscientious, said Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer. For example, when Behnken and Hurley visit SpaceX headquarters in Southern California for training, the company ensures that only “essential personnel” come near the two astronauts, Shotwell said. Those essential personnel wear masks and gloves, and the training facility is cleaned twice daily, she added.
“I think we’re really doing a great job to ensure that we are not impacting the safety or the health of the astronauts’ lives,” Shotwell said Friday, during the same briefing that Lueders participated in.
SpaceX is taking similar measures to protect its own employees, she added. More than half of the company’s engineering staff is currently working from home, and the ones who still come into the office have protective gear, Shotwell said. (The federal government regards the aerospace industry as a “critical infrastructure sector,” so SpaceX is exempt from California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s work-from-home executive order.)
Space shuttle launches always drew crowds to Florida’s Space Coast, and Demo-2 would likely have been an especially well-attended event. But the pandemic has nixed a big in-person launch party; NASA is telling people to stay at home and watch the mission on their computer screens.
That’s a bummer for many of us, especially Behnken and Hurley.
“It certainly is a disappointing aspect of all this pandemic, is the fact that we won’t have the luxury of our family and friends being there at Kennedy to watch the launch,” Hurley said in yet another Demo-2 news conference on Friday. “But obviously it’s the right thing to do in the current environment.”
The two astronauts have been pretty isolated for a while already. But they’ll enter mandatory pre-flight quarantine on May 16 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, agency officials said. They’ll travel to the Space Coast aboard a NASA jet about a week before liftoff, remaining in quarantine all the while.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, who did not participate in Friday’s news conferences, has expressed strong opinions via Twitter about the coronavirus pandemic and the nation’s response to it. For example, Musk has said that panic about the virus’ spread could end up being worse than the pandemic itself. And, over the past few days, the billionaire entrepreneur has posted numerous tweets objecting to stay-at-home orders.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.