Lucy is in pieces: solar arrays, a telescope structure and various other components of the Jupiter-bound spacecraft are being built across the U.S. It’s a stage of development particularly susceptible to disruption — and right now, the novel coronavirus has disrupted the entire country.
Had COVID-19 appeared in the fall of 2020, all of Lucy’s pieces would be in the hands of Lockheed Martin. Ready for assembly and integration. But with parts spread throughout the supply chain, Hal Levison, principal investigator for the Lucy mission, is keeping a close eye on the spacecraft.
It must stay on track for a narrow 21-day launch window that starts Oct. 21, 2021, to study the Trojan asteroids sharing Jupiter’s orbit around the sun.
“Lucy is actually in a place that’s very vulnerable,” said Levison, chief scientist for Southwest Research Institute’s facility in Boulder, Colo., the team leading the NASA Lucy mission.
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Studying the realms beyond Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t make space missions immune to the troubles within it. Sick employees, social distancing precautions and economic uncertainty have placed many ambitions in limbo.
NASA halted manufacturing and testing of its Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft at two key centers, putting pressure on the already ambitious Trump administration goal of reaching the moon by 2024. It could become impossible if telecommuting substantially slows work or if the $2 trillion stimulus package dampens the federal government appetite for discretionary spending.
Some science projects, such as the Lucy spacecraft and the Perseverance Mars rover, have very specific launch windows that would be costly to miss. Researchers aren’t benefiting from face-to-face collaboration that spurs new ideas, and the private sector is waiting to see if the economic fallout will decimate last year’s record investment into space startups.
COVID-19 has left the space race in flux. And while Levison believes Lucy has enough time built into its schedule for this disruption, and subcontractors have largely remained on track, he’s closely monitoring the Earthly aspects of this situation.
“It really emphasizes that what happens in space depends on what’s happening on Earth,” said Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that seeks to get more people engaged with space. “And all of the work we do in space is work that’s ultimately done on Earth.”
NASA’s budget is inseparable from politics. And right now, politicians are focused on the hemorrhaging economy.
President Donald Trump’s administration in February proposed a robust $25.2 billion for NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget. But Congress will likely have a smaller appetite for discretionary spending after approving the huge stimulus package in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s going to be a significant pressure to reduce spending,” Dreier said, “and to reduce the size of the deficit once we get through the crisis.”
Keeping projects on track requires money. And those in the space industry were already worried about timeline delays before the COVID-19 pandemic, said David Alexander, director of the Rice University Space Institute.
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NASA said its No. 1 priority is protecting employees, who have largely joined the nation’s COVID-19 driven telecommuters, but pointed to the agency’s historic role as a job creator and economic engine.
As of Wednesday, half of NASA’s facilities were at Stage 4 of the agency’s COVID-19 response framework. Stage 4 is the most restrictive stage, closing the facility to all but a limited staff required for mission-essential work and to maintain the safety and security of the center. Johnson Space Center remained at Stage 3, where the center is not closed but restricts access to mission-critical personnel, such as flight controllers in Mission Control.
Among those at Stage 4 were Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where NASA tests rocket engines, and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where some of the largest parts of the Space Launch System rocket are manufactured and assembled.
As a result, NASA suspended manufacturing and testing activities of its moon rocket and Orion spacecraft at those two facilities. Only limited production of hardware and software is being completed for the rocket. Boeing, the prime contractor for the rocket’s core stage, had been preparing to test the core stage’s computer systems at Stennis Space Center, one of several tests leading up to a critical hot fire test scheduled for this summer where the core stage’s four engines will fire nonstop for 8½ minutes.
Boeing said it supports NASA’s decision and will make as much progress as possible until onsite work resumes.
“We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement last week, “but as our teams work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce.”
Pursuit of science
Research is being affected, too. The 51st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference was supposed to attract nearly 2,000 people to The Woodlands last week. But event organizers canceled it due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
That conference is hosted by the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a Houston-based program managed by the Universities Space Research Association that helps connect NASA with lunar and planetary researchers. Lunar and Planetary Institute Director Louise Prockter said the conference is an opportunity to hear about new research, get inspired and then go on to further advance — or refute — that research. The conference also fosters collaboration.
“Very few people work alone in science,” Prockter said. “Not having those face-to-face interactions might not have a big effect initially, but as time goes on I think that will become a concern.”
At NASA, science missions not receiving hands-on work include the James Webb Space Telescope. Its team in California has suspended integration and testing. This telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is already a decade behind schedule with a price tag that’s billions of dollars more than initially estimated. The telescope is slated to launch next year.
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The Perseverance rover headed to Mars has a more immediate launch between July 17 and Aug. 5, and it remains a high priority for NASA as this window allowing for the most efficient path to Mars only opens every 26 months. NASA said launch and mission preparations are continuing with a limited team of on-site personnel. Other team members are assisting them remotely.
“The cost for missing this launch window are hundreds of millions of dollars to wait two years for the next launch opportunities,” Dreier said.
The European Space Agency and the Roscosmos Space Corp. postponed their launch to Mars until 2022 as they needed more time for testing their spacecraft and the COVID-19 outbreak made it impossible to travel to visit the project’s partners. The European Space Agency has also turned off science instruments on some spacecraft that have already been launched, putting these spacecraft into largely unattended safe configurations as the agency further reduced on-site personnel at its mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.
As for the Lucy spacecraft, there is a backup possibility if its 21-day window is missed in the fall of 2021. The next launch opportunity would be a year later, though the cost overrun associated with this delay would prompt a review to see if the mission is still justified.
“There is this backup launch window,” Levison said, “but it would be very painful to implement it.”
Launches moving forward
And so far, it doesn’t appear that Florida launches have been affected. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center last week. And as of Wednesday, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, was still planning to launch a rocket on Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
NASA and SpaceX recently announced plans to launch astronauts from U.S. soil, the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, as soon as May.
“You can’t have a launch and social distancing,” said Meagan Crawford, managing partner of SpaceFund, a Houston-based venture capital firm that invests in space startups. “You’ve got to have a whole bunch of people in the control room. You’ve got to have a whole bunch of people out at the rocket getting it prepared.”
She fears a prolonged period of delayed launches could be devastating to space startups that don’t earn revenues until their satellites reach space.
SpaceFund was founded last year and has invested in three space companies. But Crawford said fundraising is temporarily on hold as the individuals and family offices that fund the venture capital firm’s investments feel out the shaky economy.
Last year, space startups received a record $5.7 billion in financing, according to analytics and engineering firm Bryce Space and Technology. Crawford expects a dip in that number this year, though she ultimately expects space investments will continue to accelerate as the economy recovers.
“I’m pretty confident that things will pick back up,” she said. “When we come out of this, people will hopefully be looking to the future with some positivity and get excited again about humanity’s future in space.”