At the end of May, NASA astronauts are slated to launch to space from the United States once again, after nearly a decade of launching on Russian rockets from Kazakhstan — but NASA does not want members of the public to travel to see the mission in person. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is urging people to stay home and watch the historic mission online because of safety concerns associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We are asking people to join us in this launch, but to do so from home,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference today on the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This upcoming launch is set to be a significant achievement for both NASA and the United States. On May 27th, two NASA astronauts — Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — are set to fly to orbit on a newly developed private spacecraft, built by NASA’s commercial partner SpaceX. Called the Crew Dragon, the capsule is designed to launch on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and take the duo to the International Space Station.
When it happens, the flight will be the first time that American astronauts have launched on US-made space vehicles from American soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Ever since that last Space Shuttle launch from Florida, NASA astronauts have relied on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to get them to and from the International Space Station, an arrangement that’s cost NASA about $81 million per passenger. To end that reliance on Russia, NASA tasked two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — to create vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from thee space station as the Shuttle once did, part of a program known as Commercial Crew. After six years of development, SpaceX is finally ready to put people on its vehicle and return US human spaceflight to Florida.
The launch will also mark the first time that people have launched to orbit on a privately developed spacecraft, and it will also be SpaceX’s first time launching humans to space. In normal times, the launch draw enormous crowds to Florida and its beaches, which NASA would likely have promoted. But given the lockdowns across the US, NASA wants a much quieter affair.
“A lot of the folks on the line here know that when we launch to space from the Kennedy Space Center, it draws huge, huge crowds, and that is not right now what we’re trying to do,” Bridenstine said. “We’re trying to make sure we have access to the International Space Station, without drawing the massive amount of crowds that we usually would.”
Before some rocket launches, NASA invites space enthusiasts to Kennedy Space Center to see the facilities and the vehicle on the launchpad. This time, Bridenstine said that NASA would keep the Center closed to the public. He also noted that NASA will work with the State of Florida to amp up highway patrols and crowd control near Kennedy. But ultimately any crackdowns on crowds outside of Kennedy will have to come from the local government. “NASA doesn’t have any plan right now to go beyond the Kennedy Space Center as it relates to our activities,” Bridenstine said. “That would be left largely to the state of Florida.”
Meanwhile, Bridenstine said that extra precautions are being taken to ensure that the NASA personnel working on the upcoming launch will be safe. NASA has modified shift schedules so that groups of people aren’t all working on the same vehicles at the same time. NASA is also making sure people have appropriate protective gear when working in close proximity to one another. Modifications to the mission control area are being considered, too. “When we launch to space, there’s a lot of people in the mission control facilities,” Bridenstine said. “We need to make sure that we are separating people as much as possible using different rooms.” He noted that it’s possible plexiglass might be put in place to separate people working at various stations within mission control.
Ultimately, NASA employees who are working on the mission can come forward if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, Bridenstine said. When asked if anyone had come forward, Bridenstine said that “there really haven’t been” any employees, except for maybe a few people who have wondered if NASA is taking the right precautions.
“We’re looking at all the things where we can practice the guidelines for social distancing, and at the same time, launch this very important mission to the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said.
Despite the plea for people to stay home for the launch, Bridenstine still said he wanted the members of the public to feel involved with the mission, even if it’s virtual. “We want them engaged,” he said. “We want them to participate. We want them to tell their friends and family. But we also want them to watch from a place that’s not the Kennedy Space Center.”