The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: JPL

Updated 8:00 p.m. Eastern with NASA decision to move all centers to Stage 3.

WASHINGTON — NASA announced late March 17 that it was instituting mandatory telework for all agency employees except mission-essential personnel in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement that he was putting all of the agency’s centers into “Stage 3” of a NASA response framework to the pandemic. At Stage 3, employees and contractors are instructed to work remotely, with only mission-essential personnel allowed access to the site. Travel is also restricted to that deemed mission-essential by the agency.

“Although a limited amount of employees have tested positive for COVID-19, it is imperative that we take this pre-emptive step to thwart further spreading of the virus among the workforce and our communities,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “Implementing best practices early and quickly will increase the likelihoods of better outcomes.”

In the statement, Bridenstine referred employees to collaboration tools for remote working. However, some employees have reported problems accessing teleconferencing services, which the agency, in a statement posted on a personnel website, blamed on “unprecedented levels of usage by people working from alternate locations across the country.” The document offered several alternatives, but noted there was “no known timeframe for resolving the problem.”

Even before Bridenstine’s announcement, a growing number of NASA centers had moved to Stage 3 of the pandemic response plan. NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans announced March 16 that it was moving to Stage 3. In an email to facility staff, Robert Champion, director of Michoud, said that no employees had been diagnosed with the coronavirus disease COVID-19. Instead, he said he decided to institute mandatory telework because more than 100 cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed in the area, raising concerns of growing community transmission of the disease.

Similarly, the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi has moved to Stage 3, instituting mandatory telework. No employees of the center have been diagnosed yet with the disease.

NASA officials had already been discussing special measures at Stennis, where the first Space Launch System core stage is being prepared for its “Green Run” static-fire test later this year. Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a March 13 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee that agency officials, including its chief medical officer, had discussed performing “temperature checks” of those working on SLS there “to make sure we don’t have the entire workforce down for a month.”

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, announced late March 16 that it was instituting mandatory teleworking effective March 17. JPL had previously advised employees that they were “highly encouraged” to start teleworking on that date, but decided to make it mandatory.

As with Michoud and Stennis, JPL has yet to report any employees diagnosed with COVID-19. The move, the center said in a statement, is made “out of an abundance of caution” given the spread of the disease.

JPL is run for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, which, like many other universities, has canceled in-person classes through the rest of the academic year, instituting remote learning. The university has canceled all on- and off-campus events through June 12, the end of the spring term.

Two other NASA centers, Ames Research Center in California and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, had previously decided to go to Stage 3 after one employee at each center had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

In addition, several California countries in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Santa Clara county, where Ames is located, are under “shelter in place” orders restricting all but essential movement. Ames, in a March 16 statement, said it was rescinding any previous approvals for people to work on-site, limiting access to only personnel needed for the center’s safety and security. The mandatory telework order at Ames will remain in effect through at least April 7.

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...