How the Space Industry Is Working Around the Coronavirus Pandemic
Denrie Caila Perez posted on June 17, 2020 |
Both NASA and the commercial space sector are adjusting amid COVID-19 restrictions.

With various industries finding themselves in limbo after the rise in COVD-19 cases, companies have had to redefine the way they operate amid current challenges. On May 30, NASA sent astronauts aboard the reusable Crew Dragon carried by the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. This was known as Demo-2, being the first crewed demo launch of the Crew Dragon. Its success docking onto the International Space Station (ISS) not only marked the spacecraft’s certification for regular NASA astronaut missions in the future, but also marked a milestone for SpaceX with its first mission to send humans into orbit. However, in spite of this recent achievement, the space industry has not been able to perform its usual responsibilities.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program team after the SpaceX Crew Dragon docked with the International Space Station. (Image courtesy of NASA/Joel Kowsky.)
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program team after the SpaceX Crew Dragon docked with the International Space Station. (Image courtesy of NASA/Joel Kowsky.)

NASA’s Ames Research Center was the first agency to shut down operations back in March after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus. Other constituents followed soon afterward, shifting instead to telework. This meant that NASA’s on-site research and mission projects had to be either done remotely or delayed until further notice. The only kind of work permitted to continue were those deemed “mission critical,” which were essentially projects that relied on a strict timetable. This includes projects such as the Mars 2020 rover (aka Perseverance) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the SpaceX Crew Dragon launch at the Kennedy Space Center.

Mars missions only get a launch window approximately every two years when Earth and Mars are nearest each other. To get the rover to Mars on schedule, NASA will need to launch Perseverance this summer. As for Crew Dragon, delaying ISS missions could potentially leave the station under-crewed later on.

NASA’s rover mission team on their first day working together from home. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)
NASA’s rover mission team on their first day working together from home. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Private companies have also been forced into lockdown, with both launches and manufacturing at a complete standstill. A number of companies struggled to make ends meet amid the pandemic, such as Bigelow Aerospace, which let its entire workforce go back in March. OneWeb also filed for bankruptcy as it was unable to raise funds due to the coronavirus.

Other companies have simply decided to reign back operations until it is safe enough to pick up again. Relatively Space told reporters that it is still operating and working on developing a 3D-printed rocket, stating that the company is instead “slowing down.” Rocket Lab paused all launch operations in March but announced that it will be resuming launches this June. SpaceX is currently continuing Starship testing.

The space industry has also been contributing to efforts to fight the coronavirus. NASA engineers recently developed a new type of ventilator that is easier and quicker to produce. The device has already been licensed freely to eight manufacturers. Virgin Orbit also developed a ventilator, while Boeing and Blue Origin are currently making face shields and other personal protective equipment. Maxar and Planet saw growth in demand for the data gathered by their satellite fleet, which tracks global and regional trends.

Engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. that developed a new ventilator prototype for coronavirus disease patients. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)
Engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. that developed a new ventilator prototype for coronavirus disease patients. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

As the United States is slowly easing restrictions, the space industry is looking forward to resuming operations and projects. The Mars 2020 project is already slated to launch on July 17. NASA also began gradually normalizing crew work a month ago for the Space Launch System—the new rocket that will send humans back to the moon. The agency is already anticipating a potential launch around 2021.


For more news and stories, check out Relativity Space’s plans to launch the first 3D-printed rocket here.


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