Mar 17, 2020 - Science

The coronavirus pandemic is setting back the space industry

Illustration of a blinking pause button

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From canceled conferences to a delayed Mars mission, the space industry is starting to feel the effects of the coronavirus pandemic as it spreads across the globe.

Why it matters: Hundreds of thousands of people are already experiencing the devastating effects of the pandemic.

  • Experts say people involved in the space industry need to be vigilant as private agencies and organizations start to be impacted as well.
  • "We're all, I think, taking it week by week if not day by day," Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson told Axios.

What’s happening: Europe and Russia decided to delay their joint ExoMars mission two years in part due to concerns around travel brought on by the pandemic.

  • NASA expects to prioritize missions with small launch windows like the Perseverance Mars mission to make sure they remain on time. The agency hasn't announced any delays so far.
  • Major gatherings of space industry insiders and scientists have been postponed, cut short or canceled, including the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs and Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference outside of Houston. The American Astronomical Society is also considering moving its summer meeting online.
  • Multiple NASA centers have moved to mandatory telework as the virus spreads through communities in the U.S.
  • Blue Origin and other space companies are encouraging their employees to work from home if they can.

China, on the other hand, is still on track to launch its first Mars mission in July despite the pandemic, according to state media reports.

What to watch: Experts say it's possible the space industry's workforce and supply chain issues will cause launch delays if impacts from the coronavirus continue to be felt for months.

  • Industry watchers should also expect that space companies, for the most part, will hunker down as the pandemic continues.
  • In a few months, as the crisis passes, it's possible that the government will start awarding relatively flexible contracts with few restrictions to help jump-start the space workforce, says Caelus Partners' Jose Ocasio-Christian.
  • Many new space companies are also dependent upon raising funds to get off the ground and build hardware. As the economy slumps, that money might be harder to come by.

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