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SpaceX and NASA still set for historic May mission despite coronavirus

Despite growing concerns over the coronavirus, SpaceX and NASA are still eyeing May 2020 for a mission that will mark the first launch of American astronauts aboard an American rocket and spacecraft since the final space shuttle mission in July 2011, ending U.S. reliance on Russia’s Soyuz program to get astronauts to and from space.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are the two NASA astronauts set to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon after launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to a statement issued by NASA on Wednesday, March 18.

NASA and SpaceX are currently targeting no earlier than mid-to-late May for launch.

The Crew Dragon has already made a round trip to the ISS, but the March 2019 mission was a test run and so only transported cargo.

The historic crewed mission planned for May 2020 will include launch, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations.

NASA said it is “proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it evolves,” adding, “The agency will continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the agency’s chief health and medical officer and communicate any updates that may impact mission planning.”

The space agency earlier this week instructed all of its employees to work from home in response to COVID-19, though mission-essential personnel will continue to show up on site. The decision followed an earlier one that told staff at a limited number of NASA facilities to work remotely.

Whether the virus impacts the current timetable remains to be seen, but following several years of intensive testing, which included a few mishaps along the way, the Crew Dragon is now ready for its first outing transporting humans to space.

In December 2019, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a short video (below) showing how the upcoming crewed mission might look, with the capsule carried to space using SpaceX’s reusable rocket system. The capsule brings the astronauts back to Earth, but the system also recovers the main rocket booster, which lands back on the ground or on a barge in the ocean, as well as the rocket faring, which is supposed to be caught by a waiting ship with a giant net, though this part of the process appears to be a case of “easier said than done.”

If the space mission is sidelined by the virus, it won’t be the first. The European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency recently announced that it was delaying its ExoMars rover mission until 2022 partly because of COVID-19, but also because it needs to carry out more equipment tests.

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