SpaceX optimistic about May crewed mission as launch industry leaders monitor coronavirus

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center for an uncrewed in-flight abort test of the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft on Jan. 19, 2020.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center for an uncrewed in-flight abort test of the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft on Jan. 19, 2020. (Image credit: SpaceX)

WASHINGTON — Leaders of the commercial launch world are taking some action to limit the impact of the new coronavirus on the space industry, but are confident it should not greatly impact their launch schedules. SpaceX, in particular, is optimistic it will launch its first crewed Dragon flight for NASA in May.

The virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has infected more than 100,000 people around the world and killed more than 4,000. But the outbreak shouldn't have a big influence on the launch industry, members of that community said in panels at the Satellite 2020 conference here.

"I'm confident we will be able to continue with the manifest we currently have to keep up with the demands upon us," said United Launch Alliance (ULA) president and CEO Tory Bruno. "We are restricting traveling overseas, we are restricting travel domestically."

Related: 13 Coronavirus myths busted by science

He also noted that a ULA employee is self-quarantining after exposure to someone who tested positive for the virus. 

Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, echoed Bruno's confidence. "The United States will be in front of this, we will take precautions to protect our populace and indirectly, protect our industries," Precourt said. "[COVID-19] will be something we deal with throughout the year. I do not think it will have a lasting chilling effect on our country's [space] priorities."

The panel moved on to cheerier news, with SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell saying that she expects at least one to two launches per month in the near future, whether they be for customers or for SpaceX's own internet-satellite constellation, Starlink.

"And we are looking at a May timeframe to launch crew for the first time," Shotwell continued. That launch, called Demo-2, will send NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to and from the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule.

Back in January, SpaceX performed a successful launch-abort test for Crew Dragon, demonstrating the capsule's ability to keep astronauts safe in the event of a launch emergency. Shortly after launch, Crew Dragon fired up its eight internal SuperDraco escape engines, pushing the capsule safely away from the rocket. Crew Dragon then deployed parachutes and landed in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast.

This test was the last big hurdle before Demo-2. (SpaceX launched a successful uncrewed mission to the ISS with Crew Dragon, called Demo-1, in March 2019.) And if Demo-2 goes as planned, SpaceX will soon begin contracted crewed flights to the ISS for NASA, under a $2.6 billion deal that was signed in 2014.

Boeing holds a similar deal worth $4.2 billion, which the aerospace giant intends to fulfill with its CST-100 Starliner capsule. But it's unclear when Boeing will be ready to fly astronauts. Several serious software issues came up during Starliner's version of Demo-1 this past December, and the Boeing capsule came back down to Earth without meeting up with the orbiting lab.

Follow JoAnna Wendel on Twitter @JoAnnaScience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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JoAnna Wendel contributor

JoAnna Wendel is a freelance science writer living in Portland, Oregon. She mainly covers Earth and planetary science but also loves the ocean, invertebrates, lichen and moss. JoAnna's work has appeared in Eos, Smithsonian Magazine, Knowable Magazine, Popular Science and more. JoAnna is also a science cartoonist and has published comics with Gizmodo, NASA, Science News for Students and more. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in general sciences because she couldn't decide on her favorite area of science. In her spare time, JoAnna likes to hike, read, paint, do crossword puzzles and hang out with her cat, Pancake.

  • Sarge
    I am former USAF Security Forces Staff Sergeant and 919th Special Operations and I want to go into space how do I apply for 2021's mission???