NASA makes unusual plea to public ahead of historic SpaceX launch

NASA has asked people to avoid traveling to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for a historic SpaceX launch next month, urging everyone to watch it online instead.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine made the unprecedented request as part of measures designed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19.

The eagerly anticipated launch, slated for May 27, will mark NASA’s first crewed launch from American soil in nearly a decade, and also see SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule set off for the first time with astronauts on board. Americans Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will travel in the capsule to the International Space Station orbiting some 220 miles above Earth.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, April 23 in which the space agency discussed its broader response to COVID-19, the NASA chief said: “We are asking people to join us in this launch, but to do so from home — we’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center.”

He added, “When we launch to space from the Kennedy Space Center, it draws huge crowds and that is not right now what we’re trying to do.”

Having thousands of space fans from across the U.S. suddenly descending on the state risks increasing COVID-19 infections and spreading the virus further afield as people return home. As a result, NASA wants people to enjoy the spectacle online instead, via a live feed on its website.

Isolating personnel

To ensure the launch goes ahead as planned, NASA needs its workers to stay healthy in the coming weeks, so it’s split them into different shifts to reduce contact.

According to Bridenstine, it means that, for example, instead of having 12 people working on the rocket at the same time, they’re currently split into three groups of four people, with each group working separate eight-hour shifts.

Mission Control is also taking social distancing seriously, with employees working in separate rooms or with plexiglass placed between each workstation.

As per the normal procedure, astronauts are put into isolation several weeks before launch to ensure they don’t contract any illnesses prior to liftoff.

Other NASA workers who aren’t directly involved with the mission have been working from home since last month.

Next month’s crewed launch from U.S. soil is set to put the nation back at the forefront of space exploration as NASA looks ahead to a crewed mission to the moon in 2024, the first since 1972. For SpaceX, sending out a crewed capsule for the very first time will be the latest extraordinary achievement for a commercial space company that has its eye on even grander goals involving missions far beyond the lunar surface.

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