Following outbreaks of coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, at a number of its facilities, NASA has announced it is suspending both its Space Launch System and Orion projects. The suspension is described as temporary but it is not yet known how long it will go on for.
“NASA will temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced in a statement. “The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume. Once this is complete, personnel allowed onsite will be limited to those needed to protect life and critical infrastructure.
“We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce.”
The Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s next-generation rocket system for launching heavy payloads and deep space missions such as the Moon to Mars project. But it has suffered from multiple delays and a ballooning budget over the years, although assembly of the rocket was finally completed last year. Orion is the spacecraft currently in development for carrying astronauts to the moon, to be launched on SLS. It recently completed space environment testing and was set to be shipped to Kennedy Space Center for launch preparations.
The suspension of the production and testing of the rocket and craft may mean that the aimed 2024 launch date for the Artemis mission to the moon could be pushed back.
NASA has not released exact figures for how many of its employees have tested positive for the COVID-19 disease. But it has confirmed that workers at at least two centers — the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Ames Research Center — have been taken ill. The agency requested last week that employees work from home, before updating this request to a requirement on Wednesday.
Despite these issues, however, NASA has said that it still intends to go ahead with its May mission to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. This would mark the first time American astronauts have been launched from American soil since the shuttering of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.