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NASA Moon Program and Hubble Telescope Successor Face COVID-19 Delays

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine was almost giddy when he unveiled the White House’s budget request in February. The Trump administration wanted to boost NASA’s annual spending by 12 percent for the fiscal year beginning on October 1, bringing it to $25.2 billion—a level not seen since the 1960s–1970s-era Apollo program. Most of the bump would go toward fast-tracking a project to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024.

Just four weeks later, on March 9, Bridenstine somberly announced the closing of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., after an employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. By March 20 two more of the agency’s locations—the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi—were shuttered over COVID-19 concerns. The closures struck at the heart of the Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket program needed for NASA’s plans to get to the moon.

And by the end of March, 10 of the agency’s 18 relevant facilities across the country were closed except to protect life and critical infrastructure. The rest were open only for work designated “mission critical” that could not be accomplished remotely. “We really have tried to be proactive … and make decisions based on not only the current conditions but [also] where things are headed,” NASA associate administrator Steve Jurczyk told employees during a virtual town hall on March 25. “Our highest priority … is your health and safety,” Bridenstine added at the event.

The SLS, which was being prepared for a test firing at the Stennis Space Center this summer, was an early casualty of coronavirus quarantines. NASA was already not going to meet the November 2020 date for the system’s debut launch as part of the Artemis I mission to send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a trial run around the moon. Before COVID-19 hit the U.S. and escalated to a pandemic, the agency had been planning to reschedule the first flight of the SLS to mid- to late 2021. Now the launch date will be reassessed based on how quickly NASA can reopen Stennis and the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the SLS rockets and parts of the Orion spacecraft are manufactured. “There’s going to come a day when we’re on the back side of this, and we need to be planning today for how [we go] back … to eventually normal operations,” Bridenstine said at the virtual town hall. “I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I don’t think anybody knows.”

NASA vacillated a bit before deciding to stop work on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is located at its prime contractor Northrop Grumman’s facility in Redondo Beach, Calif. As a defense contractor, the company is exempt from California’s statewide order shutting down most businesses, but NASA ultimately decided it could not ensure the safety of its employees working on telescope integration and testing at Northrop Grumman. The highly anticipated JWST, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, has already faced a series of delays. The Government Accountability Office warned in January that NASA had only a 12 percent chance of meeting the telescope’s latest target launch date of March 2021. The agency had planned to reassess that date this spring.

The U.S. is not the only place the JWST faces a work stoppage. On March 16 France suspended operations at the nation’s and the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, where the telescope was due to arrive later this year for launch preparations onboard an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket.

The ESA also scaled down its mission operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, where it temporarily mothballed four of 21 solar system science missions. The impacted spacecraft were Cluster, which studies Earth’s magnetic environment, the Mars-orbiting ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Mars Express, and Solar Orbiter, which is currently en route to the sun. These craft have stable orbits and long mission durations, so “turning off their science instruments and placing them into a largely unattended safe configuration … will have a negligible impact,” said Rolf Densing, the ESA’s director of operations, in a March 24 statement.

ESA flight controllers will be working on-site to oversee the April 10 flyby of BepiColombo. Launched in October 2018, the joint Japanese-European spacecraft will swing past our planet for a gravitational nudge to tighten its orbit around the sun.

Among NASA’s highest priorities is keeping the Mars 2020 rover on track for launch between July 17 and August 5. If it slips beyond that time frame, it will face a 26-month delay until Earth and Mars again align for interplanetary travel. The rover—newly named Perseverance—arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 12 to prepare for launch. “So far, Mars 2020 is moving forward on schedule,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, on March 19. “It is very well on track.”

NASA is also continuing work with SpaceX and Boeing to complete the commercially developed space taxis needed to ferry crews to and from the space station. SpaceX had been aiming for a crewed flight test of its Dragon 2 capsule in mid- to late May but now has two new hurdles to clear before then. The company is investigating a premature shutdown of an engine during the last launch of its Falcon 9 rocket on March 18. And on March 24 one of its Dragon test vehicles was destroyed during what was to be one of the final demonstrations of the system’s parachutes. The craft, which was suspended beneath a helicopter, became unstable, prompting the pilot to release it. Because the helicopter had not yet reached its intended altitude, the Dragon’s parachute system was not activated, and the vehicle crashed into the ground.

Meanwhile Boeing is finalizing a recovery plan for its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft following an uncrewed test flight in December 2019 that exposed potentially widespread software problems. The company was expected to present its plan to NASA in early April.

The agency’s last paid ride for a U.S. astronaut on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft is due to launch on April 9. The launch will take place without the usual cluster of family, friends and well-wishers. Like much of the world, Kazakhstan, home to the Soyuz’s Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site, is limiting travel amid the pandemic.

NASA has not yet begun to estimate the financial and schedule impacts of COVID-19. A $2-trillion economic stimulus bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, earmarks $60 million for NASA.

Read more about the coronavirus outbreak here.

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