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NASA suspends work on SLS megarocket and Orion capsule due to coronavirus outbreak

The first completed core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is guided toward the agency’s Pegasus barge on Jan. 8, 2020, ahead of its forthcoming journey to NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Teams rolled the core out from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to the barge in preparation for the core stage “green run” test series.
The first completed core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is guided toward the agency’s Pegasus barge on Jan. 8, 2020, ahead of its forthcoming journey to NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Teams rolled the core out from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to the barge in preparation for the core stage “green run” test series.
(Image: © NASA)

The coronavirus outbreak is complicating NASA's preparations for humanity's next giant leap.

The space agency is halting production and testing of its Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion crew capsule, the deep-space hardware designed to get astronauts to the moon and Mars, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine announced Thursday (March 19).

The temporary suspension, which takes effect Friday (March 20), is a response to the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, known as COVID-19. NASA is elevating its Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to Stage 4 of the agency's "response framework" due to concerns about the pandemic, Bridenstine said.

Related: Coronavirus outbreak shakes space industry: The effects so far

At Stage 4, the highest level of the framework, a facility shuts down, except for work required to protect life and critical infrastructure.

“The change at Stennis was made due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the community around the center, the number of self-isolation cases within our workforce there and one confirmed case among our Stennis team," Bridenstine said in an update Thursday. 

"While there are no confirmed cases at Michoud, the facility is moving to Stage 4 due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the local area, in accordance with local and federal guidelines," he added.

The SLS's huge core stage is built at Michoud and tested at Stennis. The first SLS core recently journeyed from Michoud to Stennis for a crucial "green run" test campaign ahead of the megarocket's debut mission, which will send an uncrewed Orion around the moon. That flight, known as Artemis 1, is currently targeted for mid-2021.

Artemis 2, the first crewed flight of the SLS and Orion, will send astronauts on a trip around the moon. And Artemis 3 will put two astronauts down near the moon's south pole, in the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972. NASA is working to pull off Artemis 3 in 2024, as directed by the White House.

Making that 2024 deadline will be tough, NASA officials have said, though they've also stressed that the agency welcomes, and is up to, the challenge. It's unclear at the moment how much of an impact the current work stoppage will have on the Artemis timeline, but it certainly won't help.

A significant delay would hardly be unprecedented for SLS; the powerful rocket's long development has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule slips.

Michoud and Stennis join Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley as the only NASA centers at Stage 4 in the response framework. The agency's other facilities are at Stage 3, in which telework is mandatory for all employees except "mission-essential personnel."

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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