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Falcon 9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center March 18, a launch that went ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic. (credit: SpaceX)

Space in uncertain times

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Last month, even as the coronavirus epidemic was ravaging China and making inroads in other nations, the space industry’s concerns were elsewhere. There were debates about a NASA authorization bill in the House that would reshape NASA’s Artemis program even as the agency sought more money for it, the ongoing review into the flawed test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, renewed concerns about orbital debris after a close call between two defunct satellites, and discussions about the viability and sustainability of satellite constellations like OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink as both moved into full-scale deployment.

Over the last two weeks, NASA has shifted from an agency whose workforce largely worked at more than a dozen centers around the country to one that is primarily teleworking, with only a small fraction of its employees still working on site for a limited number of “mission-essential” activities.

Those were the days. In the last couple of weeks, and especially in the last week, those issues have largely disappeared as what is now a pandemic takes hold in the United States and many other nations. But while many parts of the economy have ground to a halt, like retail and tourism, the effects on the space industry have been uneven. Some parts of it have also effectively halted, yet others continue ahead at essentially full speed—at least for now.

The first clear signs of the effects of the pandemic on the industry was bringing the circuit of conferences and other events to a standstill. On March 9, the Satellite 2020 conference got underway in Washington despite growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19, including the first cases diagnosed in the city. Conference organizers plowed ahead even as some major companies, like satellite operator SES, bowed out, saying only about 10 percent of attendees as 12 percent of exhibitors had cancelled their plans.

That turned out to be an underestimate. While the event organizers didn’t give out specific attendance figures, anecdotal evidence suggested a no-show rate well above 10 percent. While a few sessions had packed rooms, like a plenary session with Elon Musk on March 9, many others had smaller crowds. The exhibit hall was also unusually quiet: even a “happy hour” at the end of the hall’s first day March 10, with free beer and wine, failed to attract big crowds.

The conference was scheduled to go through March 12, but on March 11 city officials announced they were recommending no “mass gatherings” of more than 1,000 people to slow the spread of the disease. Within a couple hours, conference organizers announced the last (half) day of sessions March 12 were cancelled, since the convention center hosting Satellite 2020 would be closing at the end of the day.

Nearly every other event scheduled for the coming months has followed suit. On March 13, the Space Foundation announced its annual landmark event, the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, was postponed, with no new date yet announced. Some events tried rescheduling for later in the year, like the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, which announced last week it was moving from mid-May to the end of August. Others simply cancelled entirely, including, as of last Friday, the Farnborough International Airshow in England that was scheduled for July.

A far bigger impact than postponed or cancelled conferences is the change to NASA operations. Over the last two weeks, NASA has shifted from an agency whose workforce largely worked at more than a dozen centers around the country to one that is primarily teleworking, with only a small fraction of its employees still working on site for a limited number of “mission-essential” activities.

The Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay Area was first, two weeks ago, after an employee there tested positive to COVID-19. Staff was instructed to telework, and while the center at one point considered allowing some staff back on site to perform work that could not be done remotely, that changed when several local governments instituted “stay at home” orders last week.

The Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama followed suit March 14 after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, restricting access for all but essential personnel. By last Tuesday, all of NASA’s centers had entered what the agency called “Stage 3” of its pandemic response plan, requiring telework for all but mission-essential personnel and limiting travel and meetings.

“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 said.

Ames, by this point, had gone to the highest level of that response framework, Stage 4, keeping even mission-essential personnel from accessing the center; only those needed for the safety and security of the center itself could be on site. Thursday, both the Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center went to Stage 4 because of the spread of COVID-19 in those communities and the diagnosis of one Stennis employee with the disease.

That has reshaped what is considered critical work for NASA. Shuttering Michoud means stopping work on the next Space Launch System core stage and hardware for future Orion spacecraft, while closing Stennis means work preparing the first SLS core stage for its “Green Run” static-fire test later this year will stop. That will have effects on the schedule for a program that still seeks to land people on the Moon by the end of 2024.

“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,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in last Thursday’s announcement regarding the status of Michoud and Stennis.

On Friday, NASA announced it was suspending work on another major program, the James Webb Space Telescope. That spacecraft is in advanced stages of integration and testing, with a launch still scheduled for March 2021 on an Ariane 5 in French Guiana.

Earlier that day, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in an online town hall meeting that the agency had already reduced the staff working on the program, in part to allow personnel that had traveled to the Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California for that work to return home to their families. “That will lead to changes in our schedule,” he said. “It’s anticipated that, by early April, the Webb project will be experiencing day-for-day scheduling impact to its critical path.”

The launch of Webb, though, has already slipped several years, so a delay of a few additional weeks or months is not a major problem. (The same is true, of course, for SLS and Orion.) But NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, with a rover named Perseverance, can’t afford schedule slips: it needs to launch in a narrow window that opens in mid-July for only a few weeks, or face a delay of more than two years.

Because of that, Mars 2020 remains on track for the time being. “The teams are doing, frankly, heroes’ work to keep us on track for a July launch,” Zurbuchen said in that town hall meeting Friday, continuing preparations of the spacecraft for a July 17 launch. He said NASA was even considering using agency aircraft to transport personnel to KSC to support that work if commercial aviation is no longer an option. “It’s something we refer to amongst ourselves as ‘Perseverance Airlines,’” he said.

“We’re ready to go. We are healthy. We’ve been tested very well with the medical teams,” Cassidy said of his upcoming flight to the ISS.

Other missions and programs at NASA are also continuing with few major changes. In its statement Friday, the agency noted that Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center continues to oversee the International Space Station with unspecified “additional measures” in place since early in the month to reduce the risk of exposure to the disease among flight controllers. Future commercial cargo missions remain on schedule, NASA said, as well as work on the commercial crew program.

Last week, NASA announced it was targeting mid to late May for the Demo-2 launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, and opening media accreditation to cover the launch from KSC. NASA added, though, that the pandemic “may impact mission planning or media access.”

In Russia, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are continuing preparations for their launch to the station April 9 on a Soyuz spacecraft, although friends and family won’t attend the launch amid stricter pre-launch quarantine guidelines.

“We are taking our spaceflight preparation very seriously and what goes along with that is our quarantine,” Cassidy said Monday in a video released by Roscosmos that included Ivanishin and Vagner. “We’re ready to go. We are healthy. We’ve been tested very well with the medical teams.”

Launch activity, meanwhile, has been hardly affected by the pandemic. While the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, is closed as part of French government restrictions on non-essential activities, other spaceports remain open. Last week included a Chinese Long March 7A launch (which failed), a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from KSC, and two Soyuz launches, one from Plesetsk and the other from Baikonur. The three successful launches placed into orbit 60 Starlink satellites, 34 OneWeb satellites, and one Glonass navigation satellite.

Preparations continue for launches in the next week from China, New Zealand, and the United States. That includes an Atlas 5 launch of the AEHF-6 military communications satellite, which both United Launch Alliance and the US Space Force have reiterated remains on schedule for Thursday afternoon from Cape Canaveral.

Many companies in the space industry are maintaining operations, such as those that involve the production of satellites or launch vehicles. That includes companies based in California, where the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announced a “stay at home” order Thursday closing non-essential businesses.

Space companies, though, appear to be essential businesses, as aerospace manufacturing is considered part of the “critical manufacturing sector,” one of 16 industry sectors classified as “critical infrastructure” by the Department of Homeland Security. That’s allowed them to remain open, although with some changes, after consultation with local officials.

Virgin Orbit, headquartered in Long Beach, California, says it will halt work at its facility for a week, with staff teleworking as much as possible (those who can’t telework will still be paid, the company noted.) “After a week to focus on our families and our planning, we do anticipate resuming operations,” the company said, with “extreme steps” regarding cleanliness and physical distancing of those employees who do need to be on site.

Rocket Lab, which recently moved its US headquarters to Long Beach, is also continuing operations while emphasizing telework and “physical distancing and increased cleaning and sanitization of our work environment,” the company said in a statement Saturday. Its next launch, from New Zealand, is on schedule for March 30, and the company said it’s working with customers and local authorities “to minimize any potential disruption to our future missions planned in the months ahead.”

Satellite manufacturer Maxar, with factories in the Bay Area, temporarily halted production last week when local officials instituted their shelter-in-place order. But in an SEC filing Friday, the company said it resumed work two days later after determining “it is exempt from the facility closure requirements of the order given the nature of the work.” It did note, though, that it warned customers of potential delays in satellite deliveries, invoking a force majeure clause in contracts.

“I reassure to them if there’s a moment in time when they feel it’s no longer safe,” Zurbuchen said of Mars 2020 launch preparations, “we will stop.”

All that leaves the space industry in an uncertain place: some activities halted indefinitely, and others continuing with few changes, at least for now. And that’s the key phrase: “for now.” More changes are likely in store in the weeks and months to come, and if the pandemic gets worse before it gets better—and almost every leading health official believes that to be the case—fewer activities will continue uninterrupted.

Zurbuchen, in last Friday’s town hall meeting, acknowledged there were limits in what NASA would do to keep Mars 2020 on track. “Every time we have a meeting with the JPL center director and contractors, I reassure to them if there’s a moment in time when they feel it’s no longer safe,” he said, “we will stop.”

Once the worst of the pandemic is over, there will be time to see how the industry should go forward. One example will be NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon by 2024: is that schedule still feasible after delays in SLS and Orion work? Is it even desirable, weighing the costs of doing so against other activities to resuscitate the economy?

“We’ll be watching from space,” Cassidy said in Monday’s video, “and we’re very curious to come home in October and see what the world looks like at that time.” It will certainly be quite different than it is today.

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