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Groundbreaking launch comes amid historic pandemic

Not only is Wednesday’s scheduled SpaceX/NASA launch historic because it marks America’s crewed return to space after nine years, but it is also historic because it is happening in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

Planning for space travel is always intense and always meticulous, but the spread of COVID-19 threw a pretty big curveball at launch directors involved in the NASA/Space X mission.

"We are ensuring that only sanctioned personnel are near them, said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “They’re wearing masks and gloves. We are cleaning the training facility twice daily.”

The pandemic complicated an already complex project.

“I think we are really doing a great job to ensure that we are not impacting the safety or the health of the astronauts’ lives,” she said. “And we’re largely doing the same for our employees. We are nothing if our employees aren’t in great health and able to work with a clear mind and a healthy system, so we’re taking temperatures, we’re wearing masks in public areas. We are social distancing."

SPECIAL SECTION: Launch America

Much of the support staff have been working from home. The engineering staff that comes into the Kennedy Space Center or Johnson Space Center is outfitted in special personal protective equipment.

“When we understood we were going to be working in this new environment. We in the SpaceX team worked on how we needed to amend and how we were working with the different crews to make sure that they had all the safety and health precautions needed to make that they didn’t get sick,” Shotwell added. “And that crew honestly extends past (astronauts) Bob (Behnken) and Doug (Hurley), but also critical mission support team members, NASA team members and looking even at how we do our testing.”

Safety procedures will continue right up until and through launch. Contact with the two astronauts until they climb aboard Crew Dragon and the capsule hatch is closed will be very limited.

"We knew it was going to be tough getting ready for launch. But then in this new environment we had to take even more precautions because it’s not only about Bob and Doug’s safety, but it’s also about the safety of the crew on board the ISS, " said Kathy Lueders, NASA program manager.

NASA routinely quarantines astronauts before a trip into space. That’s standard operating procedure. But health procedures were ramped up considerably this go-round. Behnken and Hurley have been isolated for some time. It’s not just about their safety. The last thing they want to do is bring the virus to the crew on board the ISS.

Because of the pandemic, another launch tradition has been, to use a space flight term, scrubbed. The astronauts’ families will not be at Kennedy Space Center to see them take flight. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing concerns, the number of people permitted at the launch complex has been limited. The families will have to watch the launch from their homes in Houston


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