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COVID-19 Could Ground NASA's New Moon Rocket

By Rich Smith - Mar 23, 2020 at 1:05PM

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Work halts at Stennis Space Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility.

NASA has stopped development work on its Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion space capsule, two key parts of the space agency's plan to return to the moon in 2024.

In a statement late last week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained that "the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the community around the [Stennis Space Center in Mississippi], the number of self-isolation cases within our workforce there, and one confirmed case among our Stennis team," necessitated closing both the Center and the nearby Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the Space Launch System rocket is being built.

Artist's depiction of an SLS launch

Image source: Getty Images.

Accordingly: "NASA will temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware. The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume."

Bridenstine acknowledged that this suspension will have "impacts" on "NASA missions." Most immediately, the lack of progress toward completion will jeopardize President Trump's stated goal of landing astronauts on the moon by 2024 -- known as "Project Artemis." To achieve this goal, it was assumed to be necessary to begin launching SLS rockets carrying parts needed to assemble a "Lunar Gateway" station above the moon by 2023 at the latest -- this was in fact the primary reason Northrop Grumman was "sole-sourced" a $339 million contract last year, to modify a Cygnus supply capsule to serve as a habitation module for the station.

Other contractors whose businesses could be affected by the suspension include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and multiple other, smaller companies, both publicly traded and privately owned, who have been hired on to assist with Project Artemis.

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