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SpaceX is preparing to conduct their first manned mission known as 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 ISS. It has not launched any manned missions from American soil 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. SpaceX will ignite a new era where astronauts launch from the United States after nearly a decade! Veteran NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first to fly aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. They have been conducting all sorts of training exercises ahead of the historic Demo-2 mission. NASA and SpaceX officials are looking at a date between April and June as a potential launch day.
Though, now NASA has been forced to limit contact with astronauts who will launch aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft amid Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns. Which could have potential to delay the mission's schedule. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been taking the Coronavirus outbreak very seriously, officially declaring it a world-wide pandemic. WHO recommends social-isolation to prevent a rapid spread of the virus.
Out of an abundance of extreme caution and in the best interest of our guests and crewmembers, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will temporarily be closed as of March 16, 2020 until further notice.— Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (@ExploreSpaceKSC) March 14, 2020
You can find more information here: https://t.co/n0niGzbyyP pic.twitter.com/VJEyoSL73Q
Two NASA employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the agency’s Marshall center in Huntsville, Alabama. The center is now following "Stage 3" protocols. During Stage 3, access to the center is restricted to vital mission personnel only and other employees must work from home; attend meetings via video-chat. NASA has recently closed many of its visiting centers to the public. The visitor complex at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida said it will be closed March 16 until further notice, no visitors allowed. NASA officials stated:
"We are following CDC [Centers for Disease Control] recommendations for infection control to minimize the risk of exposure to astronauts in training, as well as all NASA employees."
The agency is concerned that key mission staff or crew members like astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley could contract the virus. COVID-19 is very contagious and affects lung function. Josh Finch, a spokesperson at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C, told Business Insider:
"The health and welfare of the crew is always paramount. […] Currently evaluating changes to the health stabilization plan due to the coronavirus."
To keep coronavirus from delaying missions, NASA is 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. Infectious diseases can compromise mission success. 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. Coronavirus is mostly contracted through direct person-to-person contact or contaminated surfaces. Finch stated:
"NASA has robust plan in place to ensure that astronauts are not ill or incubating illnesses when they launch to the International Space Station."
The HSP protocol limits the number of individuals who come in close contact with the astronaut crew, and only vital personnel has access. If needed, HSP even provides a quarantine environment for crew members to stay away from infectious agents. Finch also said NASA is actively "limiting contact with crew [astronauts] members."
"Limiting contact with crew members."
Some HSP measures even include, a 14-day quarantine ahead of launch for every crew member that will fly on a mission to the space station. Finch explains:
"This ensures that they aren't sick or incubating an illness when they get to the space station."
Staff is also trained to disinfect surfaces and environment regularly. Finch told Business Insider they have been "cleaning of surfaces, social distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene." A routine measure by NASA is that any cargo that is headed to space or the orbiting laboratory undergoes careful inspection and microbial testing.
Last Friday, a NASA spokesperson Bettina Inclán told CNBC: "Currently, the coronavirus has not significantly affected NASA’s operations and work continues on track, such as preparations for the upcoming launches of the Mars Perseverance rover mission and NASA’s Commercial Crew flight test [SpaceX’s Demo-2 Mission] to the International Space Station." Adding that NASA is "proactively monitoring" the situation, with "plans in place to address issues as they arise."