In late May, NASA astronauts are scheduled to return to space from the United States, after nearly a decade of launching on Russian missiles from Kazakhstan – but NASA doesn’t want members of the public to travel to see the mission in person. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine urges people to stay at home and view the historic mission online due to security concerns associated with the ongoing corona virus pandemic.
“We are asking people to join this launch, but to do it from home,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a news conference today about the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This upcoming launch will be a significant achievement for both NASA and the United States. On May 27, two NASA astronauts – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – fly into space in a newly developed private spacecraft built by NASA’s commercial partner SpaceX. Called the Crew Dragon, the capsule is designed to launch on top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and take the duo to the International Space Station.
When it happens, the flight is the first time that U.S. astronauts have been launched on U.S. spacecraft since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Since that last Space Shuttle launch from Florida, NASA astronauts have relied on the Russian Soyuz rocket to get them to and from the International Space Station, a scheme that costs NASA about $ 81 million per passenger. To end that dependence on Russia, NASA commissioned two private companies – SpaceX and Boeing – to create vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the space station, as the shuttle once did, as part of a program known as Commercial Crew . After six years of development, SpaceX is finally ready to put humans on its vehicle and return U.S. human spaceflight to Florida.
The launch will also be the first time humans have launched into orbit in a privately-developed spacecraft, and it will also be the first time that SpaceX launches humans into space. In normal times, the launch draws huge crowds to Florida and its beaches, which NASA probably would have promoted. But given the lockdowns in the United States, NASA wants a much quieter affair.
“A lot of people on the line here know that when we go into space from the Kennedy Space Center, it’s drawing huge, huge crowds, and that’s not what we’re trying to do now,” said Bridenstine. “We are trying to ensure that we have access to the International Space Station without pulling the crowds we would normally have.”
Before some rocket launches take place, NASA invites space enthusiasts to the Kennedy Space Center to view the facilities and vehicle on the launch pad. This time, Bridenstine said NASA would keep the center closed to the public. He also noted that NASA will work with the state of Florida to strengthen highway patrols and crowd control near Kennedy. But in the end, crackdown on the crowds outside Kennedy must come from the local government. “NASA currently has no plan to go beyond the Kennedy Space Center in our operations,” said Bridenstine. “That is largely left to the state of Florida.”
Meanwhile, Bridenstine said additional precautions are being taken to ensure that NASA personnel working on the upcoming launch are safe. NASA has adjusted shift schedules so that groups of people don’t all work on the same vehicles at the same time. NASA also ensures that people have appropriate protective equipment when working close together. Adjustments to the mission control area are also being considered. “When we go into space, there are many people in the mission’s control centers,” said Bridenstine. “We must ensure that we separate people as much as possible with different rooms.” He noted that it is possible for plexiglass to be applied to separate people who work at different stations within the mission control.
Ultimately, NASA employees working on the mission may come forward if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, Bridenstine said. When asked if anyone had come forward, Bridenstine said that “there really were no” employees, except perhaps a few people wondering if NASA was taking the right precautions.
“We are looking at all the things where we can practice the social distance guidelines, while at the same time launching this very important mission to the International Space Station,” said Bridenstine.
Despite the plea for people to stay home for the launch, Bridenstine still said he wanted the public to feel involved in the mission, even if it is virtual. “We want them to be engaged,” he said. “We want them to participate. We want them to tell their friends and family. But we also want them to watch from a place that is not the Kennedy Space Center. “