WASHINGTON — The crushing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on small businesses has became a front-burner issue for United Launch Alliance, which depends on dozens of tiny companies to supply materials and parts needed to build rockets for upcoming missions.

Making sure that companies in the supply chain could stay open and had enough workers on the job during this crisis has “taken a lot of work,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA.

ULA is a large company of about 2,500 employees with headquarters in Denver, Colorado. Its manufacturing and assembly operations are in Decatur, Alabama, and Harlingen, Texas. Launch operations are at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida; and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

With suppliers spread across multiple states, one the difficulties was determining which ones were being forced to shut down by state and local authorities.

“A big thing when this started was that we had to be all over our supply chain,” Bruno told SpaceNews. “Many of our suppliers are small guys. And even though they’re trying to do everything right, they might only have 20 or 30 employees in a facility making something for us, and a couple of cases can shut the whole facility down.”

When the first stay-at-home orders were issued in March, many suppliers weren’t sure if they would be covered as an essential business and allowed to stay open. The Pentagon issued a memo on March 20 declaring defense suppliers essential businesses. “So we had to help them with that,” Bruno said.

ULA also helped train suppliers on how to follow federal health guidelines and implement protocols to keep employees from getting sick.

Bruno said to date ULA had one confirmed case of COVID-19 in its workforce.

“I’m knocking on wood,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep our cases down, we’ve collapsed our curve and we’re making our launch manifest.”

What helped was “we got in early and aggressively with social distancing, maximizing our telework where that was possible, with self quarantine protocols. And that is probably the big lesson learned from this pandemic: The one thing you can’t get back later is time.”

ULA keeps track of how many employees are self quarantining because they may have been exposed or have symptoms but haven’t been tested yet. “That curve took off in March. And then it stopped, it rounded over, and it’s collapsed.”

As the company prepares for a U.S. Space Force mission in May and a NASA mission to Mars in July, workers still have to come into the factory and show up at launch facilities. “You can’t telework to build a rocket or to launch them,” said Bruno.

“We have contractors coming in to disinfect every hard surface, literally every hour, and then at night we do big deep cleanings,” he said. “It has really paid off.”

Upcoming launches

ULA’s next launch is U.S. Space Force USSF-7 mission scheduled for May 16 from Cape Canaveral to send the Boeing X-37B spaceplane to orbit aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.

Bruno said he could not confirm the launch date but the company in recent days has tweeted pictures of the vehicle being assembled, suggesting the mission is still on schedule.

The company  also is building an Atlas 5 rocket for NASA’s launch of a $2.4 billion rover to Mars that will search for signs of life. The Perseverance mission must launch between July 17 and Aug. 5 because that’s the window when Mars and Earth are the closest. Getting this off on time is a “pretty big deal,” said Bruno. “If we don’t, then it’s two years before you try again because you literally have to get the planets to align.”

In addition to the rocket itself, the Mars mission required ULA to build a custom cleanroom inside the rocket assembly facility so technicians can come in and work on the Perseverance rover without contaminating the spacecraft’s sensitive instruments.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...