Pandemic perseverance: How NASA has adapted to the coronavirus

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On March 2, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine headed out of a Colorado hotel after speaking at a suborbital research conference. He was followed into the hotel lobby by a group of people: some wanted to give him their business cards, others just wanted to shake his hand or pose with him for a selfie. His aides, meanwhile, were reminding him it was time to get to the airport for the flight back to Washington.

In that scrum, a reporter asked him what the agency was doing to prepare for a potential outbreak of the coronavirus disease COVID-19. At the time the number of cases, and deaths, in the United States was small but growing, “We’re taking it at this point day by day,” he said. “We have 10 centers across the nation and every single one of them, as this continues to develop, is going to be affected differently.”

That event took place less than a month and a half ago, but seems like a different era, before conferences were canceled, travel was restricted and “social distancing” became part of our everyday lexicon. COVID-19 has hit the United States as hard as any place in the world, with more than 16,000 deaths as of April 10. It has also transformed NASA like no other event in the agency’s six-decade history, dispersing its workforce and forcing it to make tough decisions about which projects to continue and which to put on hold.

The great telework shift

Bridenstine was correct that, at least initially, the agency’s field centers would respond differently to outbreak based on local conditions. The Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay Area was the first to react, announcing late March 7 it was closing after an employee was diagnosed with COVID-19.

NASA soon thereafter rolled out its “response framework” to the pandemic, a four-stage approach to curtailing activities at its facilities depending on the status of the outbreak. At Stages 1 and 2, centers would remain open, but with travel and meetings curtailed. By Stage 3, centers would close to all but mission-essential employees, with the rest instructed to telework. At Stage 4, only those personnel needed for safety and security, with a few exceptions, would be allowed at centers.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine addresses agency employees April 2 from his Oklahoma residence. Credit: NASA via YouTube

NASA employees soon became intimately familiar with that framework. The Marshall Space Flight Center became the second center, after Ames, to go to Stage 3 on March 14, after a center employee tested positive for COVID-19. By March 17, all NASA centers had moved to Stage 3, meaning that the vast majority of the agency’s employees were now teleworking.

Even Bridenstine was teleworking, having decamped from the ninth floor of NASA Headquarters to his family’s home in Oklahoma. “Welcome to the Bridenstine living room or, as my wife now calls it, NASA Headquarters,” he said in an April 2 video where he thanked employees for dealing with the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

An increasing number of centers went to Stage 4, citing COVID-19 cases among employees or the spread of the disease in the broader community, as well as stay-at-home orders from local and state governments that instructed nonessential businesses to close. By April 9, 11 of 18 NASA facilities were at Stage 4, open only to those needed for safety and security of the center or other urgent needs.

Setting mission priorities

The shift to telework had an effect on what NASA could, and could not, do during the pandemic. Some activities could make the transition relatively easily, be it scientists analyzing data or procurement officials reviewing proposals, who needed only a laptop and internet access to keep working.

Operating spacecraft missions also continued largely uninterrupted. While the European Space Agency temporarily suspended operations of four science missions after an employee as its spacecraft operations center was diagnosed with COVID-19, NASA missions in Earth orbit and beyond have continued uninterrupted. (Aircraft operations, including the SOFIA airborne observatory, have been grounded, though.)

“A lot of them have highly automated operations, but there are some personnel that have to come in to operate those,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, during an online NASA town hall meeting March 25. He said NASA would consider suspending operations of those spacecraft if conditions got worse, “but we’re going to maintain all our missions in space in mostly normal operations for now.”

The International Space Station continued regular operations, including the launch April 9 of a Soyuz spacecraft with one American and two Russians on board. Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center stayed open, alternating shifts between two control rooms so that one could be deep-cleaned while the other handles station operations.

The toughest decisions have involved missions in advanced stages of development. Telework isn’t an option for missions that are building hardware, and that physical work often involves dozens of engineers and technicians working closely, making it difficult or impossible to maintain recommended distancing.

Two programs have emerged as must-continue efforts despite the pandemic. One is NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, whose rover is, aptly enough, named Perseverance. Its urgency is based on its narrow launch window: it must launch between the middle of July and early August or wait more than two years to try again. The spacecraft is at the Kennedy Space Center undergoing final preparations for launch July 17 on an Atlas 5.

NASA technicians at Kennedy Space Center on March 10 prepare the Mars Helicopter for integration with Mars 2020’s Perseverance rover. KSC was still open April 10 for mission-essential personnel. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

“Mars 2020 has been raised to the highest priority,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at a meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science March 31. The mission, she said, remained on schedule despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“The teams are doing, frankly, heroes’ work to keep us on track for a July launch,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. NASA has even considered using its own aircraft to ferry equipment and personnel to KSC for launch preparations should commercial aviation be grounded, a concept he dubbed “Perseverance Airlines.”

The other high-priority effort is NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, specifically preparations for the upcoming Demo-2 test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with two NASA astronauts aboard. That mission doesn’t have the narrow launch window of Mars 2020 and is, in fact, years behind schedule. However, a successful Crew Dragon test flight would end NASA’s dependence on the Soyuz spacecraft for getting to the ISS — and NASA’s access to Soyuz seats ends this fall unless the agency is able to buy additional seats from Roscosmos.

That Demo-2 mission is currently scheduled for the latter half of May, pending final tests of the spacecraft’s parachute system and the outcome of the investigation into an engine anomaly on an otherwise successful Falcon 9 launch in March. The astronauts flying that mission, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, conducted a series of simulations in March for that mission, with personnel “closely adhering to CDC recommendations on infection control for the coronavirus,” NASA noted in a statement.

Other programs in development, however, are facing delays. NASA announced March 20 that it was suspending work on the James Webb Space Telescope, which had been undergoing integration and testing (I&T) at a Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California. Five days later, NASA said that work had resumed, but at a reduced level and only until early April.

That slowdown, said Bill Ochs, JWST project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was caused by the reduction in NASA staff on site overseeing the work, from the usual 45 to 50 down to about 15. Personnel from Goddard who had been at Northrop returned home as the pandemic worsened, he said, leaving behind a core team based on the West Coast.

The work that was continuing was being done with new procedures to ensure proper distancing among those working on the spacecraft. It would stop once again, he said, when they reached a planned test of the Deployable Tower Assembly, a core spacecraft structure.

“At that point we will shut down I&T operations,” Ochs said at a March 31 meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Activities from that point forward require the full NASA and Northrop team.”

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley conducted simulations in March for the Demo-2 mission, with personnel “closely adhering to CDC recommendations on infection control for the coronavirus.” Credit: SpaceX via KSC Flickr

JWST’s scheduled launch in March 2021 was already in doubt because of past problems and limited schedule reserves. Ochs said that, before the pandemic hit, the mission had 52 days of schedule reserve remaining. “Once we hit the other side of this, we will then do a full evaluation of where we are with the JWST schedule,” he said, adding that the project had enough funding to handle a delay of at least a few months.

NASA’s Artemis program is also feeling the effects of the pandemic, despite the high priority NASA and the administration have given to returning humans to the moon by the end of 2024. While the Orion spacecraft that will fly the Artemis 1 mission completed testing and returned to KSC in March, work on the Space Launch System has largely stopped.

For a time, NASA tried to keep work on SLS going, in particular the core stage being prepared for its “Green Run” static-fire test at the Stennis Space Center. Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a March 13 committee meeting that the agency had considered doing daily temperature checks of the people working on SLS at Stennis.

However, Stennis, along with the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility, have all gone to Stage 4, shutting down work on SLS there. NASA officials acknowledged that would likely delay the overall program, including the Artemis 1 launch that, before the pandemic, had already slipped to at least the middle of 2021.

“The safety of our people is more important than the schedule of these important projects,” Paul McConnaughey, deputy director of Marshall, said during an April 2 online town hall meeting for the center’s staff.

Getting to the back side of the curve

Some within NASA have asked what the agency could do to help the response to the pandemic, given its capabilities and expertise in areas like life support systems.

“I’ve heard from employees across the agency who want to help the nation combat COVID-19. These comments exemplify the prevailing, can-do spirit of NASA people and our willingness to take on any challenge,” Bridenstine said in an April 1 statement.

In response, NASA announced an internal “NASA @ Work” challenge, allowing employees to submit ideas of how NASA can help. Those include ways of producing personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, as well as ideas of how NASA data can help chart the impacts of the pandemic on society and the environment.

NASA is offering its supercomputing resources as part a consortium of government agencies, companies and universities led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. NASA supercomputers at the Ames Research Center will be available to researchers studying the coronavirus to help develop treatments and vaccines.

NASA, though, is unlikely to get into the business of building ventilators, said J.D. Polk, NASA’s chief health and medical officer, in the March 25 online town hall meeting. He added that the agency lacked a surplus of PPE items, like masks and gloves, it could transfer to hospitals. “NASA orders its PPE on a just-in-time basis. We don’t have a massive stockpile of PPE to donate,” he said.

The biggest uncertainty about the pandemic is how long it will be before NASA can start returning to normal — or, at least, some semblance of normalcy. The White House has extended its guidelines for dealing with the pandemic, like social distancing and staying at home, though the end of April.

“We know we will not return before this date,” said Steve Miley, associate director of Marshall, “and probably not immediately after that date as well.”

Bridenstine said in the agencywide town hall meeting that NASA would take a cautious approach to reopening centers once they’re on “the back side of the curve” of COVID-19 cases. “That’s what we’re working through right now,” he said. “What does it take to go from [Stage] 4 to 3? What does it take to go from 3 to 2?”

“We certainly don’t want to go too early,” he added of that transition back to normal operations. “It’s better to stay in 4 or stay in 3 for a longer period of time rather than go back and forth, which can be more problematic.”

Jody Singer, director of Marshall, offered a blunt assessment at her center’s town hall meeting. “I just don’t know when we’ll be able to come back to work.”

Amid that uncertainty, Bridenstine offered an encouraging message to them in his April 2 video. “I am grateful, but I can also tell you that the nation is grateful, because what we are going to do this summer will absolutely stun the world,” he said, referring to the Demo-2 mission and Mars 2020 launch. “We’re going to get on the back side of this curve, and when we do, there is a very bright future.”

This article originally appeared in the April 13, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.