SLS core stage
With the first SLS core stage declared complete, NASA and Boeing are negotiating a contract for long-term production of the rocket. Credit: NASA/Jude Guidry

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans will partially reopen May 18, allowing some mission-critical personnel to resume working there for the first time in two months.

In a May 17 statement, Robert Champion, director of Michoud, said the center would move from Stage 4 to Stage 3 of NASA’s response framework on the 18th, making it the first NASA facility to shift closer to normal operations since the pandemic starting closing Michoud and other NASA centers in March.

Champion said that the easing of city and state stay-at-home orders was one factor in the decision to go down to Stage 3. Another factor was a 14-day decline in the number of cases of COVID-19 and other “influenza-like” illnesses in the New Orleans area.

Moving to Stage 3 will allow some staff to return to the center, although most will continue to work from home. “All employees who are able to telework should continue to do so,” Champion said. “Access to the center will be limited to authorized personnel working on mission-critical tasks that must be conducted on-site.”

Those mission-critical tasks include work on the second Space Launch System core stage and hardware for the Orion spacecraft, which are manufactured at Michoud. “We will slowly and methodically resume SLS core stage and Orion production activities, particularly critical path deliverables to support the Artemis program,” he wrote.

The work that does resume at Michoud, he said, will follow federal guidelines regarding social distancing and use of personal protective equipment. Face coverings, for example, will be required of everyone in “high-traffic and common areas” at the center.

NASA officials started laying out plans to reopen centers and move to lower stages during a town hall meeting May 6. At that time 12 of NASA’s 18 facilities were at Stage 4 and the other six at Stage 3.

NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard said at that town hall that the agency’s approach would allow a “phased and gradual return to work” at centers, starting with those people who need to work on-site for mission-critical projects. However, telework for those who can work remotely is likely to remain in place for some time, in part because of concerns about the inability to maintain social distancing in an office environment.

Other centers may follow Michoud’s lead in the coming weeks. At the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, also at Stage 4, a small number of additional personnel are now working on site to start preparations to resume work on the Green Run test of the first SLS core stage, the agency said in a May 14 statement. Stennis is planning 30 days “of limited crew activity on site” before moving to Stage 3.

Other facilities are expecting to remain largely in teleworking mode for the foreseeable future. “We have just a tiny fraction of the lab population coming on to the lab. Everyone else is telecommuting,” said Michael Watkins, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during an online presentation that was part of the annual Caltech Alumni Association’s Seminar Day event May 16. JPL, which Caltech operates for NASA, has been Stage 3 since March.

The people who are working on-site at JPL, he said, includes those making final preparations for the Mars 2020 mission launching in July and a few other critical projects, as well as those involved in the safety and security of the lab itself.

“We’re actually being pretty effective. We’re learning how to get better at it,” he said of telework. He added, though, it does have its drawbacks. “We miss being together, socially. We have a very rich culture, a very questioning culture. We like to talk to each other and argue with each other about what’s going on. It’s a little harder virtually, but we’ve hung in there.”

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...