Space in the time of the coronavirus

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“We can’t build Orion from home."

The annual Satellite conference in Washington is one of the industry’s biggest events of the year. Thousands come to the Washington Convention Center to hear from industry executives, show off their wares in the exhibit hall and make deals.

This year was different. While organizers said immediately before the conference started March 9 that “roughly 10%” of registrants had canceled their plans, anecdotal evidence, like lightly attended sessions, suggested a much higher no-show rate. Many companies had dropped out entirely, turning the show floor into something of a ghost town.

This was not a sign of an unhealthy industry but rather an industry worried about conditions that could be unhealthy. Satellite 2020 had the unfortunate timing of taking place as the coronavirus outbreak had become a global pandemic, with people skittish about travel and large gatherings. The conference ended a day early when the convention center, acting on a local government recommendation against gatherings of more than 1,000 people, announced plans to close.

At least the conference took place. During and immediately before the show, many other events announced they were either postponed or canceled entirely. By the end of the week, the industry’s biggest event, the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs scheduled for the end of March, bowed to the inevitable and announced it would be postponed to a date yet to be determined.

The scrubbing of the conference schedule for the foreseeable future is probably the most certain outcome of the growing pandemic. With sports leagues, schools and theaters shutting down for at least several weeks, holding a large gathering of any kind seems unwise.

The broader repercussions of the pandemic remain unclear, in part because no one knows how long or how severe it will be. “We have a lot of ambiguity at this moment,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator of science, said at a March 12 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee (a meeting that was to take place at NASA Headquarters but became a teleconference because of the outbreak.)

“The way we’re dealing with that is to look at all options,” he said. “How do we prioritize the work that needs to be done? What are the things that are absolutely urgent that need to go forward?” That prioritization, he said, would give top billing to missions with narrow launch windows, like the Mars 2020 mission scheduled for launch in July.

Virtual meetings and telework is one way to cope with the pandemic, but it has its limitations. “We can’t build Orion from home,” said Jules Schneider, director of assembly, test and launch operations for Orion at Lockheed Martin. The Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission will return to the Kennedy Space Center from testing in Ohio later this month for final launch preparations, and Schneider said KSC leadership had agreed to treat that work as essential even if center access is restricted.

The effects of the pandemic on space businesses remain unclear. At the beginning of Satellite 2020, some executives and analysts played down its impact, saying it would only have a “transitory effect” on the industry. Others are more pessimistic, particularly for startups that are looking to raise money.

“Every business needs to be prepared for a worst-case scenario, and this is a worst-case scenario,” said one industry executive during a conversation at the conference, who added that the challenges for some companies could be opportunities for others, from increased demand for satellite communications to acquisition of struggling competitors.

At this point, no one knows how severe this pandemic will be, and thus what its impact will be on space, from business plans to NASA budget projections. In a conversation during Satellite 2020, one person speculated that postponed events might be rescheduled for after the summer. “But they all can’t take place in September!” another protested. We can only hope an overcrowded calendar is the most we have to worry about.

This column will appear in the March 16 issue of SpaceNews magazine.