NASA’s response so far to the COVID-19 pandemic has focused on switching to remote work as the virus spreads, but the agency is also evaluating other methods to deal with the unprecedented public health crisis, including new ways to contribute to the larger US response.
These measures include finding ways to support staff to care for relatives and to collaborate with other government agencies to help medical staff care for patients. But NASA’s top priority during the coronavirus pandemic is the safety of its employees, emphasized agency manager Jim Bridenstine during a digital city hall was held yesterday (March 25).
“Our highest priority as an agency is your health and your safety, and we don̵
NASA management also told staff to expect missions that are already on the run to remain in their normal state through the pandemic, pointing to the fact that many work mostly autonomously as a matter of course. “We will continue to operate these,” said administrator Steve Jurczyk.
With reference to the European Space Agency decision to change four assignments to a safe holding position with fully autonomous operations, Jurczyk said that NASA will at least for now not follow suit. “We may be looking into it if things deteriorate further, but we will keep all of our missions in space in mostly regular operations at the moment,” he said.
Most of the City Hall focused on answering questions that NASA staff had asked about the ongoing crisis and the agency’s response to it. In particular, the staff asked leadership about how the agency evaluated how it could use its resources – whether it was considering finding ways to manufacture fans or donate protective equipment, for example.
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Bridenstine and James D. Polk, NASA’s director of health and medicine, said the agency was really studying potential grants but was not yet ready to announce any action.
Partly, Polk said, NASA is waiting for a meeting of governments scheduled for today (March 26), which is supposed to work out how agencies can collaborate effectively. He said he expected topics like NASA could support ventilation production that would be discussed during that conversation.
“These are a lot of people at the agency,” Bridenstine said. “NASA is involved in providing solutions for the nation, and we will become more and more engaged as the days go on, as we have an extremely talented and very bright workforce and many capabilities that can help.”
Donate personal protective equipment from cleanroom and other NASA facilities are complicated, Polk said, because the agency orders these items on a just-in-time schedule. “We don’t have a massive stock of PPE to donate,” he said of those items, including masks and gloves.
Some mission-critical work that continues also requires this equipment, and supply shortages have required NASA centers to send materials to one another. He also pointed to concerns about getting the right equipment to the right people through the right channels. “We’re investigating it right now,” Polk said.
Bridenstine highlighted NASA’s Ames Research Center in California for its initiative to look for ways to contribute to the pandemic response. The center has worked for donate supercomputer resources to researchers who were looking for treatments and vaccines for the new coronavirus and also worked with the state’s National Guard to make space available for outposts for medical care.
The other big topic that was addressed during City Hall was how NASA meets the needs of its own employees during this upheaval. Issues addressed issues such as how staff can take time to care for relatives, whether entrepreneurs would be paid during the entire crisis, and how the transition to working remotely could affect NASA in the long run.
Throughout the conversation, NASA management emphasized that the agency’s priorities were focused on employee health, safety for critical assignments and flexibility during uncertain times. They also expressed confidence in actions the agency has adopted so far, even when these measures seemed premature. “Every time we’ve made a decision and we’ve felt that we may be leaning too far forward, the world will come to us very quickly and it turns out to be a good decision,” Polk said.
While the conversation focused on NASA’s tactics for surviving the pandemic, Bridenstine was careful to note that he believes the crisis will eventually be resolved. “Let’s not get caught up in those times that seem dark; let’s start thinking about what the future looks like,” he said. “We must make sure that we think of a future that is bright. We must think of a future where NASA is making amazing progress that not only inspires the nation but the world.”
See the full virtual City Hall meeting with NASA Chief Jim Bridenstine here.