The coronavirus pandemic has not only impacted the schedules of schools, businesses, governments, and venues all over Earth; the reach of quarantine is now taking a trip to space as NASA is forced to postpone various projects due to both coronavirus precautions and more mundane financial factors.
NASA has recently decided to postpone its plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope due to the large number of people required on-site to work on its integration and testing at Northrop Grumman in Southern California. This decision was made in part due to a desire to protect workers and in part due to California Governor Newsom’s order for non-essential businesses to “shelter in place.” Work on projects such as the Space Launch System and Orion has been largely paused and most project work has gone virtual for the time being.
NASA will move ahead with its Mars mission, Mars 2020, continuing to work on the Perseverance rover in time for the scheduled July launch, as this project has been deemed “high-priority.” However, NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen claims that he would not hesitate to stop work on the program and wait for the 2022 launch window if it were considered unsafe to continue work. Mission Control for the International Space Station continues to operate at the Johnson Space Center with some level of safety measures, and NASA still plans to send US astronaut Chris Cassidy to the International Space Station on 9 April, albeit with the usual two weeks of quarantine beforehand.
This is not the first time this year that NASA has had to postpone projects–in January, NASA postponed the launch of the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, VIPER, to the south pole of the moon due to comments from various delivery companies that led agency members to want more time to adjust the final task order for the project due to its complexity. NASA has also recently warned that their next moon landing may need to be moved back by a year due to costs and re-evaluation of goals regarding the lunar Gateway, an outpost that orbits the moon.
Other parts of the space world have also made adjustments due to the pandemic situation: the annual Satellite conference in Washington, D.C. was mostly canceled with the exception of a few events. The joint Russia-Europe ExoMars rover project, which involves sending a UK rover named after early genetic scientist Rosalind Franklin to Mars in order to search for past and present life, has shifted its launch date to 2022.
NASA fans seeking some light reading during this period of isolation need look no further than the NASA website: NASA’s e-book series, such as the Hubble Focus series which explores scientific contributions of the Hubble Space Telescope, are available for download at https://www.nasa.gov/connect/ebooks/index.html. Season 4 of the NASA Explorers video series is also available on both YouTube and the NASA Explorers Facebook page. While we may not be able to actually apply the advice in the International Space Station Researcher’s Guides, which show readers how to adapt their own scientific research to a space environment, we can certainly dream.
Last modified: 23rd March 2020