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How coronavirus puts NASA’s space race at risk

Lucy is in parts: solar arrays, a telescope structure and various other components of the Jupiter-bound spacecraft being built across the United States. It is a developmental stage that is particularly susceptible to disruption – and right now the new corona virus has disrupted the entire country.

Had COVID-19 appeared in the fall of 2020, all of Lucy’s pieces would be in the hands of Lockheed Martin. Ready for assembly and integration. But with parts scattered throughout the supply chain, Hal Levison, principal investigator for the Lucy mission, keeps a close eye on the spaceship.

It must stay on track for a narrow 21-day launch window starting October 21, 2021 to study the Trojan asteroids sharing Jupiter̵

7;s orbit around the sun.

“Lucy is actually in a place that is very vulnerable,” said Levison, chief scientist for the Southwest Research Institute’s facility in Boulder, Colo., The team that manages NASA’s Lucy mission.

At HoustonChronicle.com: The space industry has an advantage in the decline in coronavirus: government customers

Studying the world outside the Earth’s atmosphere does not make space missions immune to the problems in it. Sick employees, social distance measures and financial uncertainty have placed many ambitions in limbo.

NASA halted production and testing of its spacecraft and spacecraft from the Space Launch System at two major centers, putting pressure on the already ambitious Trump administration goal of reaching the moon by 2024. It may be impossible if telecommunications significantly slows down work or $ 2 trillion The stimulus package dampens the federal government’s appetite for discretionary spending.

Some science projects, such as Lucy spaceships and Perseverance Mars rover, have very specific launch windows that it would be costly to miss. Researchers are not taking advantage of face-to-face collaboration that stimulates new ideas, and the private sector is waiting to see if the economic downturn will reduce last year’s record investments in space launches.

COVID-19 has left the space race in flow. And while Levison believes that Lucy has enough time built into his schedule for this disruption, and subcontractors have largely remained on track, he is closely monitoring the mundane aspects of this situation.

“It really emphasizes that what happens in space depends on what happens on Earth,” says Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that seeks to get more people involved in space. “And all the work we do in space is work that is finally done on earth.”

Federal support

NASA’s budget is inseparable from politics. And right now, politicians are focused on the booming economy.

In February, President Donald Trump’s administration proposed a robust $ 25.2 billion for NASA’s fiscal year 2021. But Congress will likely have a smaller appetite for discretionary spending after approving the huge stimulus package in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There will be significant pressure to reduce spending,” Dreier said, “and to reduce the size of the deficit as we get through the crisis.”

Keeping projects on track requires money. And those in the space industry were already worried about time delays before the COVID-19 pandemic, says David Alexander, director of the Rice University Space Institute.

At HoustonChronicle.com: Trump is proposing a big boost in NASA funding to get back to the moon

NASA said its No. 1 priority is to protect employees, who have largely joined the country’s COVID-19-powered telecommunications, but pointed to the agency’s historic role as a job creator and economic engine.

As of Wednesday, half of NASA’s facilities were in Stage 4 of the agency’s COVID-19 response frame. Step 4 is the most restrictive stage, and closes the facility for all but a limited staff required for mission-critical work and to maintain the safety and security of the center. The Johnson Space Center remained on Stage 3, where the center is not closed but restricts access to mission-critical personnel, such as air traffic controllers in Mission Control.

Among those on Stage 4 were the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where NASA tests rocket engines and the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where some of the largest parts of the Space Launch System rocket are manufactured and assembled.

As a result, NASA discontinued manufacturing and testing of its lunar rocket and spacecraft Orion at these two facilities. Only limited production of hardware and software is ready for the rocket. Boeing, the main contractor for the rocket’s core stage, had prepared to test the core stage’s computer system at the Stennis Space Center, one of several tests that led to a critically hot fire test planned this summer where the core stage’s four engines will fire nonstop for 8½ minutes.

Boeing said it supports NASA’s decision and will make as much progress as possible until the on-site work resumes.

“We realize it will impact NASA missions,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement last week, “but when our teams work to analyze the whole picture and reduce the risks, we understand that our highest priority is the health and safety of NASA workforce. “

The pursuit of science

Research is also affected. The 51st Lunar and Planetetary Science conference would attract nearly 2,000 people to The Woodlands last week. But event organizers canceled it because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

That conference is hosted by the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a Houston-based program managed by the University’s Space Research Association that helps connect NASA to lunar and planetary scientists. Lunar and Planetary Institute director Louise Prockter said the conference is an opportunity to hear about new research, get inspired and then continue to continue – or disprove – that research. The conference also promotes collaboration.

“Very few people work alone in science,” Prockter said. “Not having these personal interactions may not have a big impact initially, but as time goes on, I think it will be a problem.”

At NASA, science missions that do not get practical work include the James Webb Space Telescope. Its California team has suspended integration and testing. This telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is already a decade behind schedule with a billions of dollars worth more than originally estimated. The telescope is scheduled to be launched next year.

At HoustonChronicle.com: Proponents are seeking more for science in the proposed $ 25.2B NASA budget

Perseverance rover on its way to Mars has a more immediate launch between July 17 and August 5, and it is still a high priority for NASA as this window that allows the most efficient route to Mars is only opened every 26 months. NASA said preparations and missions continue with a limited team of staff on site. Other team members help them remotely.

“The cost of missing this launch window is hundreds of millions of dollars to wait two years for the next launch opportunity,” Dreier said.

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos Space Corp postponed their launch to Mars by 2022 as they needed more time to test their spacecraft and the COVID-19 outbreak made it impossible to travel to visit the project partners. The European Space Agency has also switched off scientific instruments on certain spacecraft that have already been launched, which has added these spacecraft to largely unguarded secure configurations as the agency further reduced staff on-site at its mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.

As for the Lucy spaceship, there is a possibility of backup if the 21-day window is missing in the fall of 2021. The next launch opportunity would be a year later, although the cost overrun for this delay would lead to a review to see if the mission is still justified.

“There’s this boot window for backup,” Levison said, “but it would be very painful to implement it.”

Launches ahead

And so far, Florida launches don’t seem to have been affected. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center last week. And as of Wednesday, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, was still planning to launch a rocket on Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

NASA and SpaceX recently announced plans to launch astronauts from U.S. Earth, the first time since the space shuttle retired in 2011 as soon as May.

Still, some are worried that US launches could eventually be disrupted as they have done in New Zealand and French Guiana, which is in South America.

“You can’t have a launch and social distance,” said Meagan Crawford, chief of SpaceFund, a Houston-based venture capital firm that invests in space launches. “You have to have a whole lot of people in the control room. You have to have a whole bunch of people out at the rocket to prepare it. “

She fears that an extended period of delayed launches can be devastating for space launchers who do not earn revenue until their satellites reach space.

SpaceFund was founded last year and has invested in three space companies. But Crawford said that fundraisers are temporarily held because the individuals and family offices that finance venture capital firms’ investments feel the shaky economy.

Last year, space launches received record funding of $ 5.7 billion, according to research and engineering firm Bryce Space and Technology. Crawford expects a dip in that number this year, although she ultimately expects space investment to continue to accelerate as the economy recovers.

“I’m pretty sure things will get going again,” she said. “When we get out of this, hopefully people will look at the future with some positivity and get excited again about humanity’s future in space.”

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