Foust Forward | Rethinking what space activities are essential
The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the American economy. More than 17 million Americans filed for unemployment over a three-week period in late March and early April, a surge unprecedented in the history of employment records by the Labor Department. Whole sectors of the economy, from travel and tourism to restaurants and retail, are ghosts of their former selves as the public is instructed to stay at home.
The space industry, though, has been largely sheltered from those pains. There have been companies that said they laid off staff because of the coronavirus, but often there were underlying problems. OneWeb blamed the pandemic for its Chapter 11 filing, but the company faced major hurdles even in the best of economic times to raise its required funding. With OneWeb bankrupt, there is no demand for the spacecraft OneWeb Satellites, the Airbus/OneWeb joint venture, has been building in Florida. Bigelow Aerospace said it laid off its staff to comply with a stay-at-home order in Nevada, but the company’s future had been in question before the pandemic given a lack of customers for its commercial space stations.
One reason space companies have weathered the pandemic so far is that the federal government considers it an essential industry. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified 16 “critical infrastructure sectors,” one of which is critical manufacturing, a sector that includes “aerospace products and parts manufacturing.” Most local and state orders to close businesses have exempted those on the DHS list.
There is, of course, merit in that designation, as companies play key roles in building spacecraft and launch vehicles, or provide technologies and services essential to national security and other national priorities. One Pentagon agency, the Defense Innovation Unit, has even written letters intended for local authorities, urging them to classify companies it’s working with as essential so they can remain open.
However, there’s evidence that there needs to be a distinction between an essential space business and an essential space business activity. That is, not everything done by a space business classified as essential is, in fact, essential.
A case in point is Blue Origin. The Verge reported April 2 that some employees questioned plans by the company to conduct another test of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle later in the month. They worried about traveling from the company’s headquarters near Seattle to a small West Texas town for the test, and thus risk spreading COVID-19 among themselves or to the local population.
Blue Origin is certainly working on programs essential for the government, like its New Glenn rocket it has proposed to the Space Force for national security missions, as well as the BE-4 engine that powers both New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan, another competitor for that contract. But New Shepard is primarily intended for space tourism. “What is essential about a vehicle that flies potentially billionaires to space?” one employee said in The Verge article.
Likewise, SpaceX is working on essential programs like its national security launch contract proposal as well as NASA’s commercial crew program, which the agency has identified as one of its top current priorities. But its plans to launch another set of Starlink satellites April 16 raised questions, particularly when that launch was announced just a day after the U.S. Space Force said it was postponing a Falcon 9 launch of a GPS satellite because of the pandemic.
SpaceX has also continued development of its Starship launch system in South Texas, activity that has accelerated after a recent hiring surge. Hundreds of people are working there on a vehicle that has no government customers and is, for now, not clearly essential to national security or other priorities.
It’s understandable that some companies want to press ahead, feeling that they have taken proper precautions to protect their employees and wanting to stay on schedule given the uncertainty about how many weeks, or months, current restrictions will continue.
But is it worth the risk of spreading the disease, and thus jeopardizing not just employees’ health but also that of the industry?
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the April 13, 2020 issue.