Featured Image Source: NASA
SpaceX is preparing to conduct their first crewed mission, Demo-2, as part of a Commercial Crew Contract with NASA to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The agency has been dependent in Russia to ferry astronauts to the orbiting laboratory since the shuttle program ended in 2011. The Dragon spacecraft will launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first to fly aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA and SpaceX shared in a statement yesterday that they are targeting "no earlier than mid-to-late May" to conduct the Demo-2 mission.
Due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, NASA has been forced to limit contact with both astronauts amid contagion concerns. Astronaut Behnken and Astronaut Hurley told CBS reporters during an interview that they are living in a "quarantine bubble" in order to protect their health before the vital Demo-2 mission that will return capability to the United States to conduct manned rocket flights after nearly a decade. On Wednesday, NASA ordered its workforce at all space centers across the nation to begin mandatory work from home, with the exception of "mission-essential" personnel. All in an effort to stop Coronavirus from further spreading. Astronauts are continuing to train for Dragon's Demo-2 mission they shared that they are taking every precaution possible to keep everyone who is working around them healthy. Hurley told CBS News:
"We just have to be smart about what we do and how we do it and follow the protocols that our flight surgeons and medical community have set forth. We are going to do the right thing as best we can. We're going to try to continue to train as best we can. We're going to do the right things and hopefully arrive at the launch pad healthy when we actually do launch."
NASA has been following its Flight Crew Health Stabilization Program (HSP), which is a standard protocol that NASA has followed over the years to protect astronauts from diseases before a mission to the space station. The primary purpose of HSP is to mitigate the risk of contracting an infectious disease among astronaut flight members by establishing several guidelines to minimize exposure. Behnken says that he and Hurley are currently kept from interacting with too many people and that they are "using NASA transportation to try to minimize our exposure as we as we fly out to California and then onto Florida over the next few weeks." Behnken shared:
"We're kind of already in a quarantine bubble that includes the two of us and of course, by extension, our immediate families as well."
He also explained that these 'quarantine bubble' precautions are not new, that they are usually followed a couple of weeks before missions to the space station to ensure good health before launch, "We'll be leading up to launch kind of with similar precautions. It's not a lot different than what we would do for a crew that was going to launch on a Soyuz out of Baikonur, or what we did back when we launched on space shuttles."
Image Source: SpaceX Crew Dragon
The Demo-2 mission is slated for mid-to-late May, its likely Astronauts will follow strict health guidelines until launch day. Since, it is unclear how long the Coronavirus outbreak will last. Many spaceflight enthusiasts across the nation are excited to watch SpaceX's first crewed mission. This week, the Kennedy Space Center temporarily closed the launch complex where visitors watch rocket launches from, to help diminish COVID-19 spread. About that, Hurley told CBS that he is unsure if his family will be present to watch him fly to the space station in May, he said:
"I would have said emphatically yes a few weeks ago, but I think we're all just kind of one day at a time at this point regarding how people can attend the launch. It would be complete speculation on my part to sit there and say, OK, everybody's gonna be there. I think the powers that we will do what they can to make sure it's safe for everybody to come and watch the launch if that is the case, and if not, they'll have to watch it from from home. I honestly don't know."
NASA has been following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for Coronavirus response. NASA declared Stage 3 protocol, during this stage access to the center is restricted to vital mission personnel only and all other employees must work from home. The agency's Administrator Jim Bridenstine, told employees in a statement that the decision to abide by Stage 3 is a "pre-emptive step to thwart further spreading of the virus among the workforce and our communities." He advised staff:
"I strongly encourage you and your families to follow all local, state and federal guidelines to stay healthy and to help slow the spread of the virus."
If the Coronavirus outbreak worsens in the United States and Stage 4 is declared, all NASA facilities would be closed to everyone, including "mission-essential" personnel, and travel suspensions would be enforced by the agency. CBS reporters asked Astronaut Behnken what would happen if he or Hurley got sick before SpaceX's Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission to the space station, he said:
"There would be a lot of meetings, I can tell you that, to try to assess what the risk was and how we would go forward."
He wondered -"Could you kind of work through it from a quarantine perspective, make sure the space station crew was taken care of and whether or not we could get over whatever the sickness was and kind of move on from there?"
Regarding that, Astronaut Hurley added:
"Yeah, you do the right thing and you know, if a launch has to be scrubbed for a few days so crew members are healthy, that's a much better option than taking something up to the space station."