Apr 14, 2020 - Science

Space companies pivot to producing supplies to battle coronavirus

Virgin Orbit's ventilators. Photo: Virgin Orbit
Virgin Orbit's ventilators. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Space-focused organizations around the U.S. are now looking to manufacture ventilators and other much-needed health equipment to aid the pandemic relief effort.

Why it matters: With high-minded ideals centered on delivering humanity to orbit, the space industry can feel removed from the machinations of everyday life. The coronavirus crisis is bringing it down to Earth.

What's happening: Virgin Orbit has started manufacturing bridge ventilators in its Long Beach, California, facility for use in the U.S. if it receives regulatory clearance.

  • The company is now producing its first 100 units with plans to eventually make more than 200 per week at the facility after receiving clearance.
  • "We started with a quite small team ... and ramped that up to maybe two or three dozen," Virgin Orbit's Will Pomerantz told Axios via email. "Small teams can move quickly, and keeping the team small helped us keep the device extremely simple — and, at the request of the medical community, we were aiming specifically for the simplest, safest, soonest design."
  • Virgin Orbit is mostly using people who were working on future rockets for the company to manufacture these ventilators, and the company successfully staged a major test of its launch system this week.

The big picture: NASA is also looking into ways to help with ventilator production, according to SpaceNews.

  • SpaceX plans to donate hand sanitizer and face shields made by the company to hospitals in need.
  • Blue Origin is also manufacturing face shields for medical personnel.
  • "I’ve always felt lucky to genuinely admire so many of our peers, our competitors, and our customers," Pomerantz said. "I know that huge numbers of them are thinking about ways they can help."

Go deeper: How America's ventilator shortage became GM's problem

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