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Here's How The Pandemic Is Changing America's Plans For Its Newest Spaceship


Later this week, NASA and the commercial company SpaceX will launch two astronauts to the International Space Station. This is NASA's first launch of astronauts from American soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, but it's happening in the middle of a pandemic. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is warning space fans to stay away from the launch.


JIM BRIDENSTINE: Having large crowds of hundreds of thousands of people at the Kennedy Space Center - now is not the time for that.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on other ways the coronavirus is changing even spaceflight.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The last thing you want to do is to get sick in space.

SERENA AUNON-CHANCELLOR: Our goal is not to take any sort of illness, and some of the ones that we're most worried about are the simple viruses we see here on Earth.

BRUMFIEL: Serena Aunon-Chancellor is an astronaut and a doctor who went to the station in 2018. There's not a lot of room up there, and there's limited medical gear.

AUNON-CHANCELLOR: Those common cold symptoms you don't want to bring to the space station. They're not fun to deal with up there. And so you're really just trying to prevent anything with the thought being - is that once you get to ISS and you don't take any viruses with you, you're pretty darn safe from that time point.

BRUMFIEL: The International Space Station, or ISS, is 250 miles above the Earth, the ultimate place to social distance. Later this week, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly to the station in a new capsule built by the commercial company SpaceX. They've been training for years for the mission, and Hurley says as the launch date neared, the pandemic has been weighing on their minds.

DOUG HURLEY: It's a stress that you wake up with every day, and I don't think we're any different than anybody else.

BRUMFIEL: When he spoke to NPR earlier this month, he said he worried he might get sick with the coronavirus while traveling and training for the mission at SpaceX facilities in Hawthorne, Calif. Fortunately, he said, the company went all out to protect the crew.

HURLEY: You know, SpaceX just did tremendously to kind of keep us safe while we were out there training.

BRUMFIEL: For the past few weeks, the astronauts have been in quarantine, and quarantines have actually being used in space travel since well before this pandemic.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: To protect against any possible lunar contamination, the astronauts put on airtight special garments before coming aboard the rescue ship.

BRUMFIEL: That's from a NASA documentary about the first trip to the moon. The crew of the Apollo 11 mission went into quarantine both before and after their journey.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They transferred directly from the helicopter to a mobile quarantine van.

BRUMFIEL: Rob Mulcahy, a NASA flight surgeon, says this time around, stay-at-home orders have actually let astronauts hang out with their families for a little longer.

ROB MULCAHY: To be honest, this pandemic has made home quarantine a little easier for them. That's how they're able to stay at home and do the home quarantine.

BRUMFIEL: Mulcahy says there are much bigger changes on the ground, including in mission control. Staff are using stations far apart to keep social distance, and that's not all.

MULCAHY: We have a backup control room. And so they rotate one team there and then the next shift in the other room so that there's actually time and space between all these flight controllers.

BRUMFIEL: This launch is being done in partnership with SpaceX, whose founder Elon Musk has downplayed the coronavirus and even pushed conspiracy theories about it. But speaking earlier this month, the company's chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said SpaceX was intent on protecting its employees.


GWYNNE SHOTWELL: We're taking temperatures. We're wearing masks in public areas. We are social distancing as well.

BRUMFIEL: The launch is scheduled to take place on Wednesday afternoon. NASA will be streaming every minute online so that Americans can watch from the safety of their homes.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DYLAN STITTS' "PEPPERMINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.