Coronavirus deals blow to NASA's 2024 return-to-moon plan
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[March 20, 2020]
By Joey Roulette
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The coronavirus has
dealt a blow to NASA's plan to return Americans to the moon by 2024, as
the space agency chief on Thursday ordered the temporary closure of two
rocket production facilities after an employee tested positive for the
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement he was shutting
down the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and the Stennis Space
Center in nearby Hancock County, Mississippi, due to a rise in
coronavirus cases in the region.
“We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams
work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our
top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce,"
The closures marked the latest in a series of setbacks NASA has faced in
the development of its next-generation rocket, dubbed the Space Launch
System, or SLS, and its Orion crew vehicle, envisioned for human
missions to the moon and Mars.
Bridenstine did not say how long the shutdown might last but
acknowledged it would require NASA to "temporarily suspend production
and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware."
Work on the SLS, led by Boeing Co as the prime contractor, has been
dogged by years of delays and nearly $2 billion in cost overruns. The
work stoppage in the face of the coronavirus pandemic comes as engineers
raced to complete preparations for the rocket's first all-engine ground
test this summer.
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Tourists take pictures of a NASA sign at the Kennedy Space Center
visitors complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 14, 2010.
On Tuesday, all 11 NASA centers were placed at Stage 3 of the
agency's coronavirus contingency plans, requiring staff to work
remotely except for those assigned to "mission-essential" projects,
including the Space Launch System.
But NASA's Stennis center and the Michoud Assembly Facility were
elevated on Thursday to Stage 4, the highest level calling for a
temporary shutdown, after an employee was diagnosed with the virus.
The orders essentially put the brakes on NASA's accelerated
timetable for returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, an
achievement viewed as a stepping stone to human exploration of Mars.
The U.S. Apollo program, NASA's forerunner to the current lunar
effort, accomplished the world's first six and only manned missions
to the moon between 1969 and 1972.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Steve Gorman
and Sandra Maler)
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