In late May, NASA astronauts are due to launch again from the United States after almost a decade of launching Russian missiles from Kazakhstan – but NASA does not want the public to travel to see the mission in person. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is asking people to stay home and follow the historic mission online because of security concerns surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"We ask people to join us on this launch, but from home," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at a press conference today about the agency's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This upcoming launch will be a major achievement for both NASA and the United States. On May 27, two NASA astronauts – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – fly into orbit with a newly developed private spacecraft built by commercial NASA partner SpaceX. The capsule, called the Crew Dragon, is said to launch on the SpaceX rocket Falcon 9 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and take the duo to the International Space Station.
"We ask people to join us on this launch, but from home."
When this happens, the flight is the first time that American astronauts have launched US spacecraft from American soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. Since the last launch of the Florida space shuttle, NASA astronauts have relied on the Russian Soyuz rocket to take it to and from the International Space Station, an agreement that cost NASA about $ 81 million per passenger Has. To end this dependence on Russia, NASA commissioned two private companies – SpaceX and Boeing – to develop vehicles that could transport astronauts to and from your space station, as the shuttle once did. This was part of a program known as the Commercial Crew. After six years of development, SpaceX is finally ready to put people in its vehicle and bring American space travel back to Florida.
The launch is also the first time that humans have been put into orbit on a privately developed spaceship, and it will also be the first time that SpaceX will launch humans into space. In normal times, the launch draws huge crowds to Florida and its beaches, which NASA would probably have promoted. Given the closures in the U.S., NASA wants a much calmer affair.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (L) and Doug Hurley (R), who are said to fly with SpaceX's Crew Dragon
"A lot of people here know that when we launch into space from the Kennedy Space Center, it attracts huge, huge crowds, and that's not what we're trying to do right now," said Bridenstine. "We are trying to make sure that we have access to the International Space Station without attracting the enormous amount of crowds that we would normally."
Before a few rocket launches, NASA invites space enthusiasts to the Kennedy Space Center to see the facilities and vehicle on the launch pad. 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 strengthen highway patrols and mass control near Kennedy. But ultimately all raids on crowds outside of Kennedy must come from the local government. "NASA currently has no plan to go beyond the Kennedy Space Center in terms of our activities," said Bridenstine. "That would largely be left to the state of Florida."
"We have to make sure that we separate people as much as possible."
In the meantime, Bridenstine said additional arrangements will be made to ensure that NASA personnel working on the upcoming launch are safe. NASA has changed the shift schedule so that not all groups of people work on the same vehicles at the same time. NASA also ensures that people have adequate protective gear when working in close proximity. Changes to the mission control area will also be considered. "When we launch into space, there are a lot of people in the mission control facilities," said Bridenstine. "We have to make sure that we separate people as much as possible in different rooms." He noted that it is possible to use plexiglass to separate people who work at different stations within mission control.
Ultimately, NASA employees working on the mission can report if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, said Bridenstine. When asked if anyone came forward, Bridenstine said that "there really weren't any employees," except maybe a few people who wondered if NASA was taking the right precautions.
"We are looking at all the things where we can practice the guidelines for social distancing and at the same time start this very important mission to the International Space Station," said Bridenstine.
Despite the request that people stay home for the launch, Bridenstine still said he wanted members of the public to feel involved in the mission, even if it was virtual. "We want them to be engaged," he said. “We want you to participate. We want them to tell their friends and family. But we also want them to watch from a place that isn't the Kennedy Space Center. "