While much of the world’s business has ground to a halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic, spaceflight has been moving along in fits and starts. Most spaceports remain active, and in the United States, launch companies have been classified as “essential” businesses, meaning they are continuing operations, at least to some extent.
And at NASA, they’re still flying to the International Space Station. Much of the space agency, including Johnson Space Center, is presently at Stage 3 of NASA’s pandemic response plan. This phase lies just short of Stage 4, during which facilities are shuttered except to protect life and critical infrastructure. It seems likely that more of the space agency will move to Stage 4 this week, but NASA will continue to operate the station regardless.
“The teams responsible for supporting the International Space Station from Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center are considered mission-essential personnel and will continue their duties should we move to Stage 4 of the COVID-19 NASA Response Framework,” a NASA spokesman said.
Presently NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan are in space, along with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, on board the space station. They are scheduled to be joined on April 9 by three more people, NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Russians Ivan Vagner and Anatoli Ivanishin. The trio will launch on a Soyuz vehicle from a spaceport in Kazakhstan. Media and visitors have been excluded from this launch, but it remains on track.
Good luck to everyone
These three crew members have spent the last month performing their final training in Star City, near Moscow. During that time the crew has been in a loose quarantine, limiting their interactions with people. “We’re ready to go,” Cassidy said Monday in a video message released by the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos. “We are healthy. We’ve been tested very well with the medical teams. We are taking our spaceflight preparation very seriously.”
But, Cassidy acknowledged, that does not mean the astronauts are ignoring the plight of humanity amidst the coronavirus pandemic. “Our hearts go out to all of the people in the world who are dealing with this crisis,” he said.
It has to be weird to be launching into space at a moment when the rest of the world is gripped by a crisis—to the one human outpost likely to be untouched by the virus. Even so, Cassidy said the space-bound crew will be closely tracking the developing pandemic from 400km above the planet’s surface.
“We just are thinking, with all the people in the world, we’ll be watching from space,” Cassidy said. “We’re very curious to come home in October and see what the world looks like at that time. So good luck to everyone.”