The coronavirus pandemic on Earth is knocking NASA’s moon plans off course.
On Thursday evening, Jim Bridenstine, the space agency’s administrator, announced the suspension of the manufacture and testing of the Space Launch System and Orion, the giant rocket and crew capsule that would be used to take astronauts back to the moon.
The Trump administration had set a goal of the next moon landing occurring by the end of 2024. With the spread of the coronavirus, however, NASA is now shutting down work at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the rocket is being built, and the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, about 45 miles to the northeast of Michoud. The first Space Launch System booster is being tested at Stennis.
There has been one confirmed case of the coronavirus among Stennis employees. There are no confirmed cases at Michoud, but the number of infected people in the New Orleans area has risen quickly in the past few days.
The directive from Bridenstine is for workers at the two NASA sites to work remotely, but there is no way to build or test a rocket without people at the sites. The change takes effect Friday.
“The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume,” Bridenstine said in a news release. A minimal team will remain after the shutdown, only for security and to maintain critical infrastructure.
Development of the Space Launch System — a modern equivalent of the powerful Saturn 5 that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon — has been delayed for years, and the price tag has risen by billions of dollars. The first launch, a test flight without any astronauts aboard, was already not scheduled to occur before 2021. Now even that target may be too optimistic if work at Michoud and Stennis is suspended for an extended period.
“We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions,” Bridenstine said, “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.”
There have also been confirmed coronavirus cases at two other NASA centres: the Ames Research Center in California and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. NASA has been encouraging employees to work from home if possible.
The spread of the coronavirus could also jeopardize the launch of the Perseverance rover, which is to head to Mars this summer. That spacecraft is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which has not yet been shut down.
Because of the orbital paths of Mars and Earth, the launch must occur in a window in July or August, or it would have to be delayed until 2022 when the two planets again line up.
Another Mars mission, ExoMars, a collaboration between Russia and the European Space Agency, has already been pushed back to 2022 from 2020, mostly because of technical problems that cannot be solved by July. Officials also acknowledged that the travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic would have made the work even more challenging to complete.
More optimistically, NASA announced Wednesday that it was aiming to launch astronauts to the International Space Station before the end of May.
Two astronauts would fly aboard Crew Dragon, a capsule built by SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, and would be the first crewed mission to lift off from the United States since the space shuttles were retired in 2011. Since then, NASA has been relying on Russia to provide transportation for its astronauts.
Kenneth Chang c.2020 The New York Times Company