NASA looking to play greater role in coronavirus pandemic response

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WASHINGTON — NASA is looking for ways to leverage its expertise and capabilities to support the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, while agency leaders said they would not rush to reopen centers.

In a virtual town hall meeting March 25, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other agency officials said they’re in discussions with other federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, about how the agency can best contribute to efforts to combat the growing pandemic, with more than 65,000 confirmed cases and more than 900 deaths in the United States alone.

“Your agency, NASA, is involved in providing solution sets for the nation, and we will be more and more involved as days go on because we do have an extremely talented, very bright workforce and a lot of capabilities that can help,” Bridenstine said.

One early role is lending the agency’s supercomputing resources to researchers studying the coronavirus to develop treatments and vaccines. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium March 23, which includes NASA as well as the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, companies and universities. NASA is providing access to supercomputers at the Ames Research Center as part of that effort.

NASA is examining other ways it can support the overall coronavirus response. Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, said the agency was part of White House meetings to coordinate the federal government response to the pandemic. Some local and state governments, as well as companies, are contacting field centers as well. “We want that to continue,” he said.

Another avenue is to solicit ideas from agency personnel through an internal challenge. “We’re going to put specific areas where we think we can best contribute, and solicit ideas from anybody across the agency on addressing those challenges and contributing to those areas,” he said. “We’ll prioritize those and we’ll figure out how to get those up and running and resource those.”

One question submitted by agency employees asked if NASA could use its facilities to produce ventilators for hospitals given growing fears of shortages as the pandemic worsens. J.D. Polk, NASA’s chief health and medical officer, said that it was more likely the agency may assist companies that already produce ventilators.

“It may not be just in the building of ventilators, but it may be in helping the companies that already build ventilators change their ventilators,” he said, such as the use of 3-D printing for parts that are in short supply. “That will help us focus our expertise to where the needs really are.” Several NASA offices, he said, would be part of an interagency discussion March 26 regarding increasing the supply of ventilators.

Polk also said that NASA was looking at what personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, it had available to give to hospitals in short supply. “NASA orders its PPE on a just-in-time basis. We don’t have a massive stockpile of PPE to donate,” he said, and much of what is available is needed for its own activities, including launch preparations for the Mars 2020 mission. The agency, though, was looking at how to provide any PPE that might be available to hospitals.


Getting to the “back side of the curve”

Much of the hourlong town hall addressed the status of agency activities. Nine of NASA’s 18 facilities, which include field centers as well as NASA Headquarters and sites run by field centers, are at Stage 4 of its coronavirus response framework, closing them to all personnel except those needed for safety and security and, in a few cases, for those working on essential mission activities. The other facilities are at Stage 3, which also calls for mandatory telework but with more mission-essential personnel working on site.

While the European Space Agency announced March 24 it was suspending operations of four science missions to reduce the number of personnel in its mission control center, Jurczyk said NASA was not planning anything similar for the moment. “We’re looking at that, possibly, if things deteriorate further,” he said. “We’re going to maintain all our missions in space in mostly normal operations for now.”

Others activities are continuing, or resuming, this week. The Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission flew from Ohio, where it recently completed environmental testing, to the Kennedy Space Center on a Super Guppy aircraft March 25.

NASA also said that integration and testing work on the James Webb Space Telescope, paused March 20, has resumed at a Northrop Grumman facility March 25 with “reduced personnel and shifts.” However, that work will last only to early April because of a lack of NASA personnel there. “We’ll assess and adjust decisions as the situation unfolds,” the program said in a tweet.

One issue is when NASA will move back to normal operations. In recent days, President Donald Trump has indicated he would like to “open up” the country by Easter, April 12. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Trump said in a Fox News interview March 24. Most medical experts, and many state and local officials, say that timeline is premature.

Bridenstine, asked about those comments, said there was a “very, very low probability” that the president would act contrary to the recommendations of organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that the president was only “aspirationally” seeking to reopen the economy by Easter. “He’s been very clear that the highest priority on his agenda is the health and safety of America,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine didn’t give a timeline for moving centers back from Stage 3 and 4 towards more normal operations, saying it depends on the “conditions on the ground” at each center, as well as guidance from the federal coronavirus task force and state and local governments. “Certainly, when we get on the back side of the curve here, we need to start thinking about how we go back to work in an orderly way,” he said.

Both Bridenstine and Jurczyk indicated that NASA would take a cautious approach when moving back to normal operations, to avoid trying to resume normal operations too soon and have to deal with another outbreak of the disease. “We’re being very careful about the decision to go from [Stage] 4 to 3, or 3 to 2, and not do it too early,” Jurczyk said, to avoid going back and forth between stages.

Bridenstine encouraged employees to speak out if they felt they were working in unsafe conditions during the pandemic. “Our number-one highest priority as an agency is your health and your safety, and we don’t want to ask you to do anything that you feel is unsafe,” he said.