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.”
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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.’”