Here's How The Pandemic Is Changing America's Plans For Its Newest Spaceship

May 25, 2020
Originally published on May 26, 2020 11:41 am

This week, NASA and the commercial company SpaceX are set to launch two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in a new capsule. This is the first launch by NASA of astronauts from U.S. soil in nearly a decade, but it's happening in the middle of a pandemic.

Here are some of the ways that the coronavirus will, and won't, change the plans for the space agency's latest launch.

Astronauts have been quarantining since before it was cool.

Astronaut Chris Cassidy of NASA, left, and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, lived under strict quarantine ahead of an April flight to the space station.
Andrey Shelepin/GCTC / NASA

For decades, astronauts have avoided illness before flying by entering into quarantine ahead of their missions.

Even a minor illness on Earth has the potential to cause big problems in space, says Serena Auñón-Chancellor, a NASA astronaut and associate professor of internal medicine at Louisiana State University Health in Baton Rouge. "Those common cold symptoms, you don't want to bring to the space station, they're not fun to deal with up there."

Auñón-Chancellor herself was quarantined for 18 days in Kazakhstan before her 2018 mission to the station. "Some people we would see from behind glass," she recalls.

The quarantine procedures are actually a little easier to implement in the middle of the pandemic. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have spent two weeks in quarantine ahead of their launch, according to Rob Mulcahy, a NASA flight surgeon in charge of the pre-launch quarantine program. But this time around, stay-at-home rules have actually allowed the astronauts to spend their first week in their own houses. "Because the families are able to quarantine with them, they're able to stay at home," Mulcahy says.

But bigger changes are being required of those working on the launch from Earth.

There have been two reported cases of coronavirus infection in employees at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), where the launch will take place. Neither is believed to be linked to work at the center.

Nevertheless, officials at KSC say that they are taking appropriate steps and providing masks and hand sanitizer to workers as needed. SpaceX too is taking steps to keep its workforce safe — including using masks and social distancing in certain areas. And at mission control in Houston, Texas, Mulcahy says they've activated a back-up control room, so that different shifts don't have to operate the same equipment in case of contamination.

Once they're up, the astronauts will be winning social distancing.

At 250 miles above the surface of the planet, the space station is the ultimate stay-at-home locale. "Once you get to ISS and you don't bring any viruses with you, you're pretty darn safe from that time point," Auñón-Chancellor says.

Hurley and Behnken will join Chris Cassidy, and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who traveled to the station in early April.
But the space station is not as sterile as one might think. After years of astronauts travelling aloft, and carrying microbes with them, the station is now home to numerous different kinds of (mostly) benign bacteria and fungi.

Space fans will have to watch from home.

Crowds watch as the Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in 2005. NASA is asking people to stay away from this week's launch due to the pandemic.
Phil Sandlin / AP


Normally, rocket nuts and well-wishers would crowd Florida's Space Coast to see the return of astronaut launches from the Kennedy Space Center. But NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is discouraging crowds from attending this launch.

"We're asking people not to travel to Kennedy, but to watch online," Bridenstine said in a news conference earlier this month.

Fortunately, the entire event will be streamed live on NASA TV.

Additional reporting by Brendan Byrne of WFME.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Later this week, NASA and the commercial company SpaceX will launch two astronauts to the International Space Station. This is NASA's first launch of astronauts from American soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, but it's happening in the middle of a pandemic. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is warning space fans to stay away from the launch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Having large crowds of hundreds of thousands of people at the Kennedy Space Center - now is not the time for that.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on other ways the coronavirus is changing even spaceflight.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The last thing you want to do is to get sick in space.

SERENA AUNON-CHANCELLOR: Our goal is not to take any sort of illness, and some of the ones that we're most worried about are the simple viruses we see here on Earth.

BRUMFIEL: Serena Aunon-Chancellor is an astronaut and a doctor who went to the station in 2018. There's not a lot of room up there, and there's limited medical gear.

AUNON-CHANCELLOR: Those common cold symptoms you don't want to bring to the space station. They're not fun to deal with up there. And so you're really just trying to prevent anything with the thought being - is that once you get to ISS and you don't take any viruses with you, you're pretty darn safe from that time point.

BRUMFIEL: The International Space Station, or ISS, is 250 miles above the Earth, the ultimate place to social distance. Later this week, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly to the station in a new capsule built by the commercial company SpaceX. They've been training for years for the mission, and Hurley says as the launch date neared, the pandemic has been weighing on their minds.

DOUG HURLEY: It's a stress that you wake up with every day, and I don't think we're any different than anybody else.

BRUMFIEL: When he spoke to NPR earlier this month, he said he worried he might get sick with the coronavirus while traveling and training for the mission at SpaceX facilities in Hawthorne, Calif. Fortunately, he said, the company went all out to protect the crew.

HURLEY: You know, SpaceX just did tremendously to kind of keep us safe while we were out there training.

BRUMFIEL: For the past few weeks, the astronauts have been in quarantine, and quarantines have actually being used in space travel since well before this pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: To protect against any possible lunar contamination, the astronauts put on airtight special garments before coming aboard the rescue ship.

BRUMFIEL: That's from a NASA documentary about the first trip to the moon. The crew of the Apollo 11 mission went into quarantine both before and after their journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They transferred directly from the helicopter to a mobile quarantine van.

BRUMFIEL: Rob Mulcahy, a NASA flight surgeon, says this time around, stay-at-home orders have actually let astronauts hang out with their families for a little longer.

ROB MULCAHY: To be honest, this pandemic has made home quarantine a little easier for them. That's how they're able to stay at home and do the home quarantine.

BRUMFIEL: Mulcahy says there are much bigger changes on the ground, including in mission control. Staff are using stations far apart to keep social distance, and that's not all.

MULCAHY: We have a backup control room. And so they rotate one team there and then the next shift in the other room so that there's actually time and space between all these flight controllers.

BRUMFIEL: This launch is being done in partnership with SpaceX, whose founder Elon Musk has downplayed the coronavirus and even pushed conspiracy theories about it. But speaking earlier this month, the company's chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said SpaceX was intent on protecting its employees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWYNNE SHOTWELL: We're taking temperatures. We're wearing masks in public areas. We are social distancing as well.

BRUMFIEL: The launch is scheduled to take place on Wednesday afternoon. NASA will be streaming every minute online so that Americans can watch from the safety of their homes.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DYLAN STITTS' "PEPPERMINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.