Before this week’s launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, NASA is working to keep the enduring threat of COVID-19 at a distance during the historic launch. To protect its astronauts, ground crew, and potential visitors, NASA adjusted their approach to this highly anticipated event. If successful, this launch will not only break the US’s nine-year drought of crewed launches to the ISS, but it will also make history as the first time a private spacecraft has carried people into orbit.
“We’re taking extra precautions,” said Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a press call this month. On the ground, the agency is introducing temperature checks and physical distancing at Mission Control.
According to The Verge, a successful launch requires dozens of people who usually work in close quarters in closed rooms at Mission Control.NASA is spreading them out between different rooms for this launch “We need to make sure we are separating people as much as possible,” he said. They’ll disinfect rooms regularly and put up Plexiglas between different work stations. “We’re looking at all the things where we can practice the guidelines for social distancing, and at the same time, launch this very important mission to the International Space Station,” he said.
“We have other missions that need to go forward. We don’t want to risk the health of the people who work at Kennedy,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on a press call in May. The Mars Perseverance Rover launches in July.
“We don’t anticipate that between now and the day of launch that there’s really going to be an opportunity for them to contract any virus or harmful bacteria,”
In addition to protecting the astronauts and ground crew, NASA is also limiting the number of visitors who can come to the space center to watch the launch, Bridenstine said. The VIP list for this particular event is very short. They’re not closing dignitaries out entirely; some members of Congress and of the National Space Council will be in attendance. They won’t be able to bring along staffers, though. “We’re really trying to whittle it down to what is important,” he said.
Ahead of the launch, businesses and restaurants are opening across the state of Florida, where nearly 50,000 cases of COVID-19 have been identified. Despite the relaxation of stay-at-home orders in Florida and other nearby states, public health experts still recommend people avoid large groups and crowded spaces, where the disease spreads easily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that traveling by air, car, or bus increases someone’s chances of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
Even with the change in audience and spectacle, the nuts and bolts of the launch will continue as planned. Stich says teams at NASA have run simulations that include all of the extra COVID-19 precautions, and they’ve gone smoothly. “We don’t really see any impact on how we’re gonna operate on launch day,” he says.