Apr 28, 2020 - Science

NASA's subdued return to crewed rocket launches

illustration of a and holding a tiny american flag

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

SpaceX's plan to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station at the end of May will happen under the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: Instead of a triumphant show of American astronauts launching from American soil for the first time since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, they will likely take flight amid crowd restrictions and a plea to stay away.

What's happening: SpaceX is planning to launch its first crewed mission to the ISS for NASA on May 27 as part of the space agency's bid to stop buying rides to orbit from Russia.

  • Usually, spectators cram onto beaches around the Space Coast to try to catch a glimpse of any rocket launch, especially those carrying people.
  • But NASA is now asking members of the public to refrain from traveling to Kennedy Space Center for the launch, instead saying space fans should join in online.
  • The space agency still has yet to explain exactly how members of the press will be accredited to cover the launch in person, calling into question how the public will understand this taxpayer-funded mission.
  • NASA is also considering instituting social distancing guidelines in mission control during the launch, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press call last week.
  • The agency told its workforce they can ask to be reassigned if working on the upcoming launch feels too risky.

Yes, but: NASA can restrict access to Kennedy Space Center, but the space agency has no jurisdiction over the surrounding area, making it potentially complicated to limit crowd sizes.

"We're trying to make sure we have access to the International Space Station without drawing the amount of crowds that we usually would for these activities. It's especially important now because we haven't done this since 2011, so the crowds are probably going to be bigger than they have been in a very long time."
— Jim Bridenstine

The big picture: NASA needs this launch to go off on time and without problems in order to be sure the agency can maintain a robust presence on the space station.

  • At the moment, Chris Cassidy is the only NASA astronaut on the space station, with plans for it to remain that way until Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch aboard SpaceX's Dragon.
  • "At its core, what you want to do is be able to launch this thing and get a crew rotation," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios. "You don't need the crowds to do the launch. You don't even need the press."

The bottom line: SpaceX's bid to launch people to orbit for the first time — considered to be the most significant space moment of the year — will be dulled by the ongoing pandemic.

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