In response to the growing coronavirus pandemic, NASA is shutting down production and testing of its future deep-space rockets and crew capsules. The two aircraft are a key part of NASA’s ambitious plan to send humans back to the moon by 2024, but the chances of completing the mission before the deadline are becoming less and less likely because development has been temporarily halted.
The closure came as NASA decided to tighten restrictions on the agency’s two centers. Both the Mihoud Assembly in Louisiana and the Stannis Space Center in Mississippi will enter phase 4 of NASA’s “response framework” for the epidemic, the most rigorous phase. This means that remote work is absolutely mandatory and all travel is suspended. According to a blog post by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the change came after an employee at the Stannis Space Center tested positive for COVID-19, and no one at the Mihoud assembly has tested positive, but the number of cases near the center is on the rise.
Both centers play a key role in the development of NASA’s next large-scale rocket space launch system (SLS). The core of the rocket was built in Mihoud by employees of boeing, the main contractor. Meanwhile, SLS’ first completed core component is currently at the Stannis Space Center, and a major ground test is planned later this year. The test simulates the launch process without really going into space. The test is intended to pave the way for the first release of SLS, which is currently scheduled for 2021.
The shutdown is another blow to the SLS program, which suffered delays and cost overruns long before the coronavirus began to spread. The rocket, originally scheduled for launch in 2017, will make its first flight as early as the end of next year, with manned flights now scheduled for 2022 or 2023. The program’s budget has ballooned over the past decade, with the total development cost expected to reach $18.3 billion by the time the rocket is flown, according to a recent report by NASA’s inspector general.