The coronavirus has dealt a blow to NASA’s attempt to return Americans to the moon by 2024, as the chief space agency on Thursday ordered two rocket manufacturing facilities to be temporarily closed after an employee tested positive for the disease.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement that he was shutting down New Orleans ‘ Michoud Assembly Facility and nearby Hancock County, Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center due to the increase in coronavirus cases in the area.
We know that NASA missions will have effects, but as our teams are working to evaluate the whole picture and minimize risks we agree that NASA employee health and safety is our highest priority,” Bridenstine said.
The closures marked the latest in a series of setbacks that NASA faced in designing its next-generation rocket, called the Space Launch System, or SLS, and its Orion crew spacecraft, intended for the human moon and Mars missions.
Bridenstine did not specify how long the shutdown would last but admitted that it would allow NASA to “temporarily suspend space launch system and Orion hardware development and testing.”
Research on the SLS has been plagued by years of delays and nearly $2 billion in cost overruns, led by Boeing Co as the prime contractor. Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, the work stoppage came as engineers rushed to complete plans for the first all-engine ground test of the rocket this summer.
All 11 NASA centers were put on stage 3 of the agency’s coronavirus contingency plans on Tuesday, allowing personnel to operate remotely except those assigned to “mission-essential” programs, including the Space Launch Program.
Yet on Thursday, NASA’s Stennis center and the Michoud Assembly Facility were elevated to Stage 4, the highest stage calling for temporary closure after an employee had been diagnosed with the virus.
The orders effectively set the brakes on NASA’s accelerated timetable of returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, an achievement regarded as a stepping stone for Mars ‘ human inquiry.
The U.S. Apollo program, NASA’s predecessor to the present lunar project, conducted the world’s first six and only manned moon missions from 1969 to 1972.
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31 March, 2020