NASA and SpaceX are still planning on conducting the first manned commercial crew program launch to space as early as May, indicating that the timetable for the mission has not shifted despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
A NASA media invitation posted on Wednesday and first reported on by TechCrunch said that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-2 test, which will send astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Falcon 9 rocket, is “currently targeting no earlier than mid-to-late May for launch.” That’s pretty close to the timetable as it stood in February, which was around May 7, though the possibility remains that it could be moved to June.
The mission will mark “the return of human spaceflight launch capabilities to the United States and the first launch of American astronauts aboard an American rocket and spacecraft since the final space shuttle mission on July 8, 2011,” according to NASA. The space agency already takes steps to safeguard astronauts’ health before they launch, including a two-week quarantine and inspection of supplies for microbes. But it told Business Insider earlier this month that it was “limiting contact with crew members” Behnken and Hurley (and likely emergency backup Kjell Lindgren) to prevent them from catching the virus and taking it to space.
Transportation of U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS is currently made possible through contracts to buy seats on Soyuz rockets launched by Russia’s Roscosmos. That arrangement is ongoing, as NASA’s own effort to develop alternatives through the commercial crew program has faced numerous delays. In addition to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing is developing the CST-100 Starliner, though a December 2019 test saw the craft fail to attain proper orbit and when it actually takes people into space relies on how quickly Boeing can fix a long list of problems.
NASA implemented a mandatory remote work policy for all employees who are not mission essential this week after a number of its facilities, like the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, had already independently decided to do so. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that another facility, Ames Research Center in California, was entirely closed and working remotely to comply with a shelter-in-place order imposed by local authorities.