The coronavirus (COVID-19) has dealt a blow to NASA’s plan to return Americans to the moon by 2024, as the space agency chief on Thursday ordered the temporary closure of two rocket production facilities after an employee tested positive for the illness. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement he was shutting down the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and the Stennis Space Centre in nearby Hancock County, Mississippi, due to a rise in coronavirus cases in the region.
“We realise there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams work to analyse the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce,” Bridenstine said.
Our leadership is assessing the mission impacts of coronavirus. To protect the health and safety of our workforce as the nation responds, the first assessment of work underway across all missions, projects, and programs was recently completed. More: https://t.co/L9csDWhbwJ pic.twitter.com/dI5KxF8Lxm
— NASA (@NASA) March 20, 2020
The closures marked the latest in a series of setbacks NASA has faced in the development of its next-generation rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, or SLS, and its Orion crew vehicle, envisioned for human missions to the moon and Mars.
Bridenstine did not say how long the shutdown might last but acknowledged it would require NASA to “temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware.”
Work on the SLS, led by Boeing Co. as the prime contractor, has been dogged by years of delays and nearly $2 billion in cost overruns. The work stoppage in the face of the coronavirus pandemic comes as engineers raced to complete preparations for the rocket’s first all-engine ground test this summer.
On Tuesday, all 11 NASA centres were placed at Stage 3 of the agency’s coronavirus contingency plans, requiring staff to work remotely except for those assigned to “mission-essential” projects, including the Space Launch System.
But NASA’s Stennis centre and the Michoud Assembly Facility were elevated on Thursday to Stage 4, the highest level calling for a temporary shutdown, after an employee was diagnosed with the virus.
The orders essentially put the brakes on NASA’s accelerated timetable for returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, an achievement viewed as a stepping stone to human exploration of Mars.
The US Apollo programme, NASA’s forerunner to the current lunar effort, accomplished the world’s first six and only manned missions to the moon between 1969 and 1972.
This week: the agency’s statements on coronavirus — with health and safety of the workforce the top priority. Plus, online materials to stay connected & news on @NASA_Orion, which completed a test campaign to prepare for the first #Artemis mission. Watch: https://t.co/w4FViel6u0 pic.twitter.com/mo1UI9dTyr
— NASA (@NASA) March 21, 2020