T-minus three, two, one, zero. As the rocket’s engines ignite, the mood inside the launch-control room will hover somewhere between anticipation and anxiety. Everyone’s neck will crane upward as they watch a ball of fire rise through the sky, carrying a couple of astronauts toward the edge of space. The scene will resemble every other astronaut launch from Cape Canaveral, except for one tiny detail: Everyone in the room might be wearing face masks and standing six feet apart.
As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the United States, SpaceX, on NASA’s behalf, is preparing to launch astronauts from the shores of Florida, a first in American spaceflight history. The mission, bound for the International Space Station, is currently scheduled for mid-to-late May.
In this moment, an astronaut launch might seem to be the opposite of everything Americans have been instructed to do to protect themselves and one another: Flinging people outward doesn’t quite line up with a growing nationwide impulse to turn inward. The mission would unfold against a truly unprecedented backdrop; even wars and national strife, one space historian told me, haven’t posed a challenge to the U.S. space program like this pandemic has.
NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, recently acknowledged that the circumstances could eventually delay the launch, but at least for now, the agency is still pushing ahead. The country, Bridenstine believes, could really use this right now. “It’s going to uplift America,” he said in a recent CNBC interview. “We need that moment right now in American history.” The historic launch, the rationale seems to be, has taken on new importance during a difficult time.
Like many other people across the country, most NASA employees are working from home for the foreseeable future. The pandemic has already led the agency to pause development on several programs, including a massive rocket meant to return people to the moon and a giant space telescope designed to be more powerful than Hubble. But the operation of the ISS, as well as the effort to supply it with astronauts, has been deemed “mission essential.”
The SpaceX flight had been in the works long before COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill. Since the space-shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has paid Russia to fly its astronauts from its spaceport in Kazakhstan while U.S. companies worked on American-made options back home. (A NASA astronaut launched to the ISS just last week, seated shoulder-to-shoulder with two Russian cosmonauts.)
Under normal circumstances, the laser-focus on a May launch is understandable. NASA has endured almost a decade of grumbling from lawmakers who want to wrest the United States from an expensive reliance on a former Cold War rival; before the pandemic hit, the effort had already experienced funding shortfalls, technical failures, and even a capsule-destroying fire. Boeing, the other company involved in this effort, is preparing for a do-over of an uncrewed test mission that went terribly wrong last year, and until that happens, SpaceX is the only American provider that NASA’s got—and, aside from some final tests, it seems ready to go. Russia, meanwhile, has scaled back production of its Soyuz spacecraft, anticipating that the U.S. would soon stop buying seats. NASA would prefer not to buy more, anyway.
Three American astronauts are on board the ISS now, but two are scheduled to come home, along with a Russian cosmonaut, next week on a Soyuz spacecraft. NASA has previously kept astronauts on the space station longer than planned, but the agency can’t do it this time; the Russian vehicle, which has now been in orbit for almost 200 days, is only certified to stay there for about 210. It can’t leave without them, either—the Soyuz is the only spacecraft currently attached to the station that could bring the crew home in case of an emergency.
The worst-case scenario for NASA would be to bring everyone home without the means to send anyone back up again, while Russia continues to make trips. In that case, for the first time in the space station’s existence, Americans, half of the entire effort, would be out of the game.
Charlie Bolden, a retired astronaut and the NASA administrator under Barack Obama, supports the agency’s decision to press ahead despite the circumstances; the sooner the U.S. ends its reliance on Russia, the better, he told me. So does Sean O’Keefe, the administrator before him, under George W. Bush. “You can’t just turn the lights out and say, we’ll be back,” O’Keefe told me. “[The space station] is an asset that needs constant operational attention.”
Lori Garver, the former NASA deputy administrator under Obama, disagrees. Garver was a steadfast supporter of the program while at the agency—and remains one now—but she’s surprised that her former employer is moving ahead with the mission next month. When most people hear the term essential, they think of medical workers and grocery-store clerks, not astronauts. Astronaut launches, she told me, have been delayed for far less-pressing reasons, like bad weather, and she worries about the NASA and SpaceX employees who must come in to work for this effort.
“I’m not sure risking so many lives to launch two people to the same place we’ve been going for 20 years should be prioritized,” Garver told me. “The harm is being done now because keeping the [launch] date means everyone is working now.”
No one wants to get anyone sick, let alone give the virus a chance to sneak onto the space station, where “six feet away” isn’t a realistic guideline. Bridenstine told CNBC that the 350 employees or so involved in this program are practicing social-distancing measures like the rest of us, wearing personal protective equipment, and working in rotating shifts. Fewer people than usual are interacting with the astronauts scheduled to fly next month—Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, two veterans of the space-shuttle era—and they will be quarantined, away from their families, for two weeks before launch, standard procedure for anyone going to space.
NASA is also taking steps to protect the public. In the space-shuttle days, thousands of people converged on Cape Canaveral to witness a launch, dotting the highways like gulls on a sandy beach. This time, the area will probably be closed off to spectators, who should be at home anyway. “It’ll be like a basketball game with nobody in the stands,” Bolden told me.
Still, by pushing forward with the mission, it might appear as if the world’s premier space agency has neglected to read the room. To Garver, NASA seems to be falling back on a deeply ingrained tradition of believing it can do the impossible even in the most inhospitable situations, and on the stubborn belief that failure is not an option.
“The space community often considers themselves a different level of somewhat unique and special in not having to adhere to the same rules as others—because what they’re doing is so important, it should still be done,” Garver said. “I will not be surprised if the public finds it not what they would view as ‘essential.’” I just think most people will say, ‘Well, people are dying here.’”
NASA is hoping for the opposite effect. So many events that usually provide a sense of camaraderie or national pride have been canceled or postponed—the Olympics, sports leagues, music festivals—and people could use something to cheer for. Few things can elicit feelings of wonder and inspiration like a roaring rocket launch, even on a live-stream. “No virus is stronger than the human desire to explore,” Bridenstine said last week, after the latest batch of space travelers lifted off from Kazakhstan. It is a stirring line, and the kind of sentiment you’d expect from a place known for pulling off seemingly impossible things, but it borders on foolhardiness: Viruses, after all, don’t care about any of that.