World

Launching into space during COVID-19: Two Americans prepare for liftoff from Cape Canaveral

Cape Canaveral is readying for its first manned space launch from the United States in nine years and the first time astronauts will fly on a commercial rocket made by SpaceX. The launch is scheduled for 4:33 pm ET on Wednesday.

NASA encourages spectators to stay home and watch the launch on TV to prevent the spread of coronavirus

United Launch Alliance launched its Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 17. The launch was delayed a day due to bad weather. (Mike Tracy/For CBC)

Cape Canaveral is readying to launch the first Americans aboard a space vehicle from the United States in nine years —and the first time astronauts will fly on a commercial rocket made by SpaceX.

NASA has continued launches and work at labs and space centres around the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But in a sign of the times, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstone discouraged people from coming to Florida to watch the historic launch in person on Wednesday at 4:33 p.m. ET.

"We're asking people ... to watch online or watch on your television at home," to minimize crowds and enable social distancing, he said.

NASA has designed a "virtual launch experience" to bring people closer to the event from home. Two American astronauts will be on board: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

All eyes are on Wednesday's launch, said NASA's Kirk Shireman, program manager for the International Space Station.

"July 8, 2011, was the last time humans left the planet here [from the] Kennedy Space Center and went to the International Space Station," he said. "[We are] very much looking forward to next week having Bob and Doug on orbit continuing the human presence on the International Space Station, learning and exploring."

Astronauts well prepared for quarantine

The astronauts said COVID-19 has allowed the general public to get an idea of what they experience.

"We've seen the rest of the world have to take on the same sort of precautions that we do leading up to launch," said Behnken.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley, wearing SpaceX spacesuits, walk through the Crew Access Arm connecting the launch tower to the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft during a dress rehearsal at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 17, 2020. (SpaceX)

The pair will be in a Crew Dragon capsule atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to go to the International Space Station.

The astronauts been tested at least twice so far for COVID-19, and they may be tested once more before liftoff.

Both astronauts are fathers

Quarantine is a standard procedure for astronauts heading into space, but it's usually two weeks.

"We've been in for all intents and purposes a quarantine since about March 15th is my recollection," Hurley said. "We have been in quarantine probably longer than any other space crew has ever been in the history of the space program."

There has been an up side to that for the astronauts, who are both fathers.

"It has allowed us to spend some time with our young children, who would have been below the age of access, if you will, for a quarantine if they weren't home from school," Behnken said.

As they do their final launch preparations, NASA, SpaceX and other support staff wear masks, and social distance wherever possible.

The visitor complex at the Kennedy Space Center, which is usually a prime spot for watching launches, has been closed since March 16. It is set to reopen later this month after the Crew Dragon's scheduled liftoff. It will require mandatory temperature screenings, face coverings and increasing disinfection.

NASA and SpaceX ask members of the public to stay home

Tony Taliancich, the director and general manager of United Launch Alliance Launch operations, was in charge of an Atlas V liftoff earlier this month. He said COVID-19 restrictions have meant a reduction of about 30 per cent of staff on site, with training being done remotely.

Most visitors are banned, with 100 to 150 fewer people present than would normally witness a launch.

Press numbers and procedures have changed too, said Joe Marino, a photographer for United Press international who has been covering space launches since 1984.

"They're reducing the number of people allowed into the space centre," he said. "They would like for us to wear masks while we're out there and remain separate from each other. So they've asked us for 10- to 15-foot clearance between individuals who are out there setting up their cameras."

Photographers who gathered for the launch of Atlas V on May 17 set up outside their cars and wore masks for protection from the novel coronavirus. NASA is asking people to stay home during next week's launch. (Mike Tracy/For CBC)

At least one NASA employee at the Langley Research Center, which was made famous as the setting for the award-winning film Hidden Figures, died in April after testing positive for COVID-19.

"We have taken the coronavirus pandemic very seriously. We've had a number of people infected by it," Bridenstine said.

But the space program is considered essential and missions are going forward. After the liftoff of the manned launch, called Demo-2, two SpaceX Falcon 9 missions are scheduled next week. They will carry satellites into low orbit, joining more than 400 already in space as part of SpaceX's Starlink program.

Starlink will offer high-speed internet to places where it was previously unavailable, unreliable or too expensive. The company plans to begin service in Canada and the northern U.S. later this year. 

In July, NASA is scheduled to launch a Mars rover on a ULA rocket.

NASA and SpaceX officials have urged people to stay at home for the launch, earlier this month the sheriff of Brevard County, where Cape Canaveral is located, encouraged people to come out to watch.

Fewer press photographers are expected at the space center for Wednesday's launch. (Mike Tracy/CBC)

Space shuttle launches usually attract tens of thousands of people, bringing tourist dollars to what is known as Florida's Space Coast.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence are scheduled be there.

Florida has been gradually reopening, allowing stores, restaurants and beaches to operate, with social distancing rules in place, but they are unevenly enforced.

Universal Studios plans to open its Florida theme parks on June 5. Its website carries the warning: "Exposure to COVID-19 is an inherent risk in any public location where people are present; we cannot guarantee you will not be exposed during your visit."

Walt Disney World is expected to submit its plan for reopening next week.

About the Author

Jennifer Glasse is a correspondent who has been based in Afghanistan for the past eight years, reporting for CBC News, Al Jazeera English, NPR and PBS NewsHour. She has been an international correspondent for 25 years reporting from more than 75 countries.

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