NASA and SpaceX are planning to launch the first commercial crew flight to the International Space Station sometime in May. The Crewed Dragon containing astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken will be the first American crewed space flight to take off from American soil since the last space shuttle mission in 2011.
However, as CBS News reports, the coronavirus pandemic is complicating the runup to the launch. For one thing, NASA has imposed an agency-wide order for all space agency employees to work from home except those who are considered “mission-critical.” Clearly, Hurley and Behnken have to train for their mission in person. So, some extraordinary precautions are being taken.
CBS News quotes Hurley as saying, “We just have to be smart about what we do and how we do it and follow the protocols that our flight surgeons and medical community have set forth. We are going to do the right thing as best we can. We’re going to try to continue to train as best we can. We’re going to do the right things and hopefully arrive at the launch pad healthy when we actually do launch.”
The two astronauts are following procedures that have been in place for decades for travel, using NASA transportation to visit SpaceX facilities in California and to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA astronauts operated under similar constraints during the shuttle era and when they were obliged to go to the Baikonur Cosmodrome to fly on the Soyuz.
One thing that could change is whether or not families could be flown to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch. Traditionally, astronaut families have been present to watch their loved ones fly into space. However, social distancing rules may foreclose that opportunity and Hurley’s and Behnken’s families will have to watch on television like everyone else.
Another possibility that might scrub the launch is if NASA were to decide to go to a more stringent coronavirus protocol in which even mission-critical personnel have to work from home. Also, one or more of the astronauts might take ill, meaning that the launch would have to be delayed until the disease runs its course. The last thing NASA wants to do is to bring the coronavirus to the International Space Station.
The space agency has a lot of experience quarantining astronauts. Back during the Apollo program, NASA scientists feared that the astronauts sent to the moon might bring back an alien disease against which no defense existed. Thus, the Apollo 11 astronauts were obliged to put on hazmat suits in the helicopter that recovered them from the Pacific Ocean to be transferred to a trailer on the carrier. The famous picture of President Nixon greeting Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins through the window of the trailer is a classic from the era.
The astronauts were obliged to remain in isolation for three weeks. Eventually, scientists concluded that not even microbes could survive on the lunar surface so the quarantine requirement was lifted.
As it turns out, NASA is not the only space agency that is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The French space agency CNES shut down launch operations at the Guiana Space Center last week and Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, said it would follow suit, stopping work on commercially-provided Soyuz rockets scheduled for launch in the coming weeks from the South American base.”
Some launches are going ahead, however. Russia intends to launch a Soyuz containing an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts to the ISS April 9. On April 17, three space station crewmembers are scheduled to return to Earth on board a Soyuz.
Meanwhile, SpaceX launched another 60 in a planned constellation of communications satellites called Starlink that it hopes will bring internet access to rural parts of the world. However, besides the upcoming Crewed Dragon launch and the planned liftoff of the Mars Perseverance rover scheduled in July, all other commercial space flights are up in the air, as it were. If the Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station were to be closed, commercial launches might be deferred for the foreseeable future.