NASA has looked carefully at its current and upcoming missions in the light of the necessary COVID-19 pandemic precautions. This has led to the decision to prioritize certain missions and programs to guarantee people’s safety, mission-critical operations, and the delivery of time-sensitive projects, and to suspend others.
Most NASA facilities have made remote working for all employees mandatory, but some missions require on-site work to ensure critical infrastructures remain in place to avoid delays for time-sensitive future missions. So far, the planned launch of the Mars rover Perseverance and the Mars Helicopter are still scheduled for July, and all work associated with the ISS will continue, including astronaut training and the planned launch of NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts on April 9.
However, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine confirmed the suspension of work on the next deep-space rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), the world's largest rocket and the one that will take the first woman and next man to the Moon.
"NASA will temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware," Bridenstine told AFP on March 23. "The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume."
The rocket will one day launch the Artemis I Orion spacecraft as part of the Artemis mission first to go to the Moon, and one day to Mars. Production and testing of the SLS have been suspended for now, but assembly is continuing on the Artemis II Orion spacecraft.
Work and testing operations on the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope has also been delayed, but work on the Hubble Space Telescope and satellite missions that support NOAA and the Department of Defense through GPS data (including monitoring critical weather conditions) and imaging will continue.
“We are going to take care of our people. That’s our first priority,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “Technology allows us to do a lot of what we need to do remotely, but, where hands-on work is required, it is difficult or impossible to comply with CDC guidelines while processing spaceflight hardware, and where we can’t safely do that we’re going to have to suspend work and focus on the mission-critical activities.”