NASA Marshall
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center instituted a mandatory telework policy after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus disease COVID-19 March 13. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The leaders of one of NASA’s largest field centers that has been effectively closed by the coronavirus pandemic expect it will be at least several weeks before personnel can start working on site again.

In an online town hall meeting April 2, top officials of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama said it was impossible to give a specific date for reopening the center for all personnel, but indicated it would be May at the earliest before the center could start allowing more staff to work at the center.

“I just don’t know when we’ll be able to come back to work,” Jody Singer, director of Marshall, said in opening remarks in the hourlong event, noting it was the most common question she’s heard from the center’s workforce. “This virus is dictating our timeline. We must let the data drive our decisions.”

Later in the meeting, Steve Miley, associate director of the center, said the decision to allow people back at Marshall will be based on several factors. That includes, he said, the “social distancing” protocols issued by the White House that recommend people work from home and avoid large gatherings. Those protocols, originally intended to last for the latter half of March, were extended last week through the end of April.

“We know we will not return before this date and probably not immediately after that date as well,” he said. “As much as I would like to, I won’t predict a return-to-work date.”

A decision to allow people back to work, he said, will also depend on guidance from NASA Headquarters as well as coordination with local officials. The state of Alabama instituted a stay-at-home order April 4 that, like those in many other states, requires people to remain at home except for a set of activities deemed essential.

“I will not authorize a partial or full return to the work site until it is deemed appropriate for our workforce to be there,” Singer said. That return will likely be a phased approach, she and others said, moving from Stage 4 to Stage 1 — normal operations — in a gradual way.

Marshall was the second NASA center to go to Stage 3 of the agency’s pandemic response plan, instituting mandatory telework for all but mission-essential personnel on March 14 when one center employee was diagnosed with COVID-19. The center went to Stage 4, the highest level, March 27 because of the growing number of cases of the disease in the state and guidance from Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to close nonessential businesses. Stage 4 further restricts access to the center to those needed for safety and security, with few exceptions. Marshall is one of 10 NASA facilities currently at Stage 4. The other eight are at Stage 3.

David Thaxton, the occupational health officer for Marshall, said in the town hall meeting that three Marshall employees had tested positive for COVID-19, two of which after the center went to Stage 3. At the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, which is run by Marshall and is also at Stage 4, 13 employees have tested positive. He added that, with teleworking in place for more than two weeks now, the center was not during further tracking of cases among the workforce except for those who are working on site.

With Stage 4 in place, the staff working at Marshall is limited to people such as security and essential infrastructure staff, like information technology. A few other operations remain open, such as the International Space Station payload control center at Marshall. “The Payload Operations Integration Center has done an excellent job of being resilient through this disruption,” Singer said, maintaining round-the-clock operations.

Activities that can be done primarily through telework have continued largely uninterrupted. That includes the Human Landing System program, managed by Marshall, for developing human lunar landers for the Artemis program. Awards of initial study contracts for that effort are expected later this month. “We should hear something fairly soon from Washington on that,” Paul McConnaughey, deputy center director, said of the program.

However, Singer and other Marshall officials acknowledged that some programs that require working on hardware at Marshall and Michoud facilities are on hold. That includes work on the Space Launch System and Orion hardware, as well as hardware for the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer astronomy satellite being assembled at the center. “The safety of our people is more important than the schedule of these important projects,” McConnaughey said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...