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

Updated 9:45 a.m. Eastern March 15 with ESA telework statement.

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama announced March 14 that it is instituting a mandatory telework policy after an employee was diagnosed with the coronavirus disease COVID-19 as the rest of the agency ratchets up its response to the pandemic.

In a statement, Jody Singer, director of Marshall, said the center received confirmation late March 13 that an unnamed employee had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, she said, the center was instituting “mandatory telework effective immediately and until further notice.” Only mission-essential personnel will be allowed at the center. Marshall is also performing “contact tracing” to identify people “who may have had significant contact with that employee,” Singer said.

The announcement puts Marshall in “Stage 3” of a NASA framework for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Besides mandatory telework, Stage 3 limits center resources, such as food service and clinics, to the minimum needed to support mission-essential personnel. Employees are directed to hold virtual meetings, and only mission-essential travel is permitted.

Marshall is the second NASA center to invoke mandatory telework in response to the pandemic. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California announced late March 8 it was restricting access to the center after one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19.

In an update March 13, Ames said that mandatory telework status would remain in place until March 18. At that time, it will allow employees to return who need to be physically present at the center and cannot effectively telework, such as those who work in labs and other facilities. Other employees will be allowed to return “for short durations” to retrieve items they need to continue teleworking.

The rest of the agency is now at Stage 2 in that framework, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced late March 14. Telework is “strongly encouraged” and travel not deemed mission-essential is limited.

“While we do not have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at any other NASA center as of today, March 14, out of an abundance of caution, all other NASA centers are transitioning to Stage 2 of our response framework,” Bridenstine said. “Center directors have been in contact with their employees about this status change and steps moving forward.”

“As the COVID-19 situation evolves, we’ll continue to closely monitor and coordinate with federal, state, and community officials to take any further appropriate steps to help safeguard the NASA family,” he said, urging employees that are required to go to work at centers not to do so if they feel sick, and for all to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even before Bridenstine’s announcement other centers were following suit. The Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland announced March 13 it was encouraging employees to telework, and had cancelled all “all non-mission-essential visits” to its facilities. Goddard has also closed its visitor center as well as the one for the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which is managed by Goddard.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is operated for NASA by Delaware North, announced March 14 it was closing the complex to the public, effective March 16 and until further notice, “out of an abundance of extreme caution.”

The European Space Agency is shifting to telework as well in response to the pandemic. ESA Director General Jan Woerner tweeted March 15 that the agency has asked its employees to work remotely “wherever possible” starting March 16 and until further notice. “Good health to all of you, your families and friends!” he wrote.

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...