Ahead of this week’s launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, NASA is working to keep the enduring threat of COVID-19 at bay during the historic launch. To protect its astronauts, ground crew, and potential visitors, NASA has adjusted their approach to this highly anticipated event. If successful, the launch will not only break the US’s nine-year drought of crewed launches to the ISS, but it will also make history as the first time a private spacecraft has carried people into orbit.
“We’re taking extra precautions,” said Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a press call this month. On the ground, the agency is introducing temperature checks and physical distancing at Mission Control.
A successful launch requires dozens of people who usually work in close quarters in closed rooms at Mission Control. For this launch, NASA is spreading them out between different rooms. “We need to make sure we are separating people as much as possible,” he said. They’ll disinfect rooms regularly and put up Plexiglas between different work stations. “We’re looking at all the things where we can practice the guidelines for social distancing, and at the same time, launch this very important mission to the International Space Station,” he said.
Those measures are important to protect both this launch and the next set of NASA missions. “We have other missions that need to go forward. We don’t want to risk the health of the people who work at Kennedy,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on a press call in May. The Mars Perseverance Rover launches in July.
Extreme caution is already being taken with the Crew Dragon’s astronauts. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been in quarantine since May 13th. That’s a normal part of the preparations for a mission — crews heading to space always quarantine for a period of time before a launch to minimize the chance that they’re taking an infectious disease of any kind into space. As an extra step, both Behnken and Hurley will be tested for the novel coronavirus twice before they leave for the ISS. Anyone interacting with the astronauts before the launch will wear masks and gloves and have their temperature taken.
“We don’t anticipate that between now and the day of launch that there’s really going to be an opportunity for them to contract any virus or harmful bacteria,” Bridenstine said.
In addition to protecting the astronauts and ground crew, NASA is also limiting the number of visitors who can come to the space center to watch the launch, Bridenstine said. The VIP list for this particular event is very short. They’re not closing dignitaries out entirely — some members of Congress and of the National Space Council will be in attendance. They won’t be able to bring along staffers, though. “We’re really trying to whittle it down to what is important,” he said.
Sadly, the cheering crowds that were a feature of past missions didn’t make the cut. In 2011, the last time astronauts launched into space from US soil, nearly 1 million people packed close together on bridges and beaches in Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch. NASA hopes that won’t happen this time. “We’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center,” Bridenstine said. “We think it’s in the best interest of the agency and in the best interest of the nation if people join us by watching from home.”
“It is a shame — NASA and SpaceX have worked so hard to get to the day, and the American public has come along this long journey with us,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, on a press call this month. “But it’s the right thing to do.”
NASA can only control what people do on its own property, though. It’s up to the state of Florida to regulate roads and beaches — and the county sheriff is encouraging people to come watch the launch, despite the risks of large gatherings.
“We are not going to keep the great Americans that want to come watch that from coming here,” said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey in a press conference. “If NASA is telling people to not come here and watch the launch, that’s on them. I’m telling people what I believe as an American. And so NASA has got their guidelines, and I got mine.”
Ahead of the launch, businesses and restaurants are opening across the state of Florida, where nearly 50,000 cases of COVID-19 have been identified. Despite the relaxation of stay-at-home orders in Florida and other nearby states, public health experts still recommend people avoid large groups and crowded spaces, where the disease spreads easily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that traveling by air, car, or bus increases someone’s chances of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
Even with the change in audience and spectacle, the nuts and bolts of the launch will continue as planned. Stich says teams at NASA have run simulations that include all of the extra COVID-19 precautions, and they’ve gone smoothly. “We don’t really see any impact how we’re gonna operate on launch day,” he says.
Loren Grush contributed to this report.