Launch industry puts emergency plans in place for coronavirus, but missions so far remain on schedule

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Tory Bruno: “We are limiting non essential business travel but that doesn’t include launch and rockets.”

WASHINGTON — Defense Department and NASA launch provider United Launch Alliance is implementing emergency measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak but continues to support upcoming missions, the company’s CEO Tory Bruno said March 10 during a meeting with reporters at the Satellite 2020 conference.

ULA had a reduced presence this year at the Satellite symposium.

“We are limiting the size of meetings and we are limiting non essential business travel but that doesn’t include launch and rockets obviously,” said Bruno. “Our teams have to travel to launch sites to make that happen, that’s business essential.”

Other measures include screening all visitors who come into ULA facilities and having employees self quarantine if they believe they were exposed to the virus, Bruno said.

“Our general policy is similar to what other companies and government agencies are doing,” he said. “We’re all comparing notes.”

ULA’s next launch is a U.S. Space Force satellite, the sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-6) scheduled for March 21 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Bruno said ULA also is monitoring its suppliers. “If a major supplier were impacted by corona, in turn that would flow down to us.”

During a panel discussion at Satellite alongside other launch executives, Bruno said ULA and most other large companies in the industry have business continuity plans to deal with emergencies. Launch providers plan for how they would operate if they lost a factory or vehicles to a tornado, hurricane or fire, he said. They also plan for pandemics.

Companies are still uncertain about the scope of the coronavirus crisis. “We don’t know where this will go,” said Bruno. The closest historical parallel he could think of was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when air travel was suspended and “new priorities were in front of the country,” he said. “We certainly weathered that storm and we’ll weather this one. Each day we’ll adjust our policies as we go forward,” he added. “I’m confident we’ll be able to continue with the manifest we currently have.”

The panel’s moderator, Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport, asked Bruno if he believed the coronavirus crisis will cause lasting damage to the space industry that has been in the midst of a boom in government spending and investments.

Bruno said: “I do not think this will carry through. The United States will be in front of this. I do not think this will have a lasting or chilling effect on our country’s priorities.”

Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said his company was following similar policies as those described by Bruno.

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Office Gwynne Shotwell did not comment specifically on the impact of coronavirus on the company. She said SpaceX “kicked off the year running” with five launches already carried out and is preparing to keep up the pace with about “two or so launches a month.”

In a separate panel at Satellite, Clay Mowry, vice president of sales at Blue Origin, said the company has set up an internal task force to cope with coronavirus, which has Blue Origin’s home state of Washington hard.

Employees telework and are only asked to conduct essential travel. Preparations for the first flight of the New Shepard suborbital rocket continue as planned. “Fortunately New Shepard can fly with a very small team,” said Mowry.

Elizabeth Driscoll, business development director at the rideshare provider Spaceflight, said the company is taking precautions as everyone else but continues to support launches all over the world.

Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, said executives have reduced travel and attendance to events but this “does not affect our ability to launch.”

Ko Ogasawara, vice president and general manager of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said the company is carrying on with space missions although most employees are working from home.