NASA orders five more astronaut transportation flights from SpaceX for $1.4 billion

NASA has finalized an agreement with SpaceX to purchase five more astronaut transportation missions to and from the International Space Station, further entrenching the space company’s position as the prime services vendor for the space agency.

The new contract — for the Crew-10, Crew-11, Crew-12, Crew-13 and Crew-14 missions — is valued at $1.4 billion. It brings the total contract value for all 14 transportation missions, part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program, to $4.9 billion. The funds include use of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to transport up to four astronauts, the Falcon 9 rocket for launch and all other return and recovery operations. NASA announced its intention to order the additional missions in June.

The CCtCap program is under the aegis of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, a series of public-private partnerships designed to develop domestic launch capabilities. NASA issued the original $2.6 billion contract to SpaceX in 2014. The space agency also awarded a CCtCap contract to Boeing for up to $4.2 billion, for six flights using its Starliner capsule, though that capsule has been beset by technical issues and has yet to complete a successful crewed mission. Late last week, Boeing and NASA said they were targeting early 2023 for the first crewed Starliner flight.

The ultimate goal is to use both Crew Dragon and Starliner for astronaut transportation services. Prior to CCtCap, NASA used Russia’s Soyuz capsule for astronaut transportation services. A 2019 report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General found that the space agency was spending an average of $79.7 million per seat after 2017.

NASA said in a notice published in June that it was seeking the additional flights due, in part, “to the technical and schedule challenges experienced by Boeing” and “NASA projections of when alternative crew transportation systems will be available.”

The space agency went on to stress the importance of having redundant astronaut transportation capabilities to ensure the ISS is continuously crewed through the end of the station’s life in 2030.

The space agency also extended SpaceX’s CCtCap contract in February.

Watch the Crew-4 mission launch at the crack of dawn in ‘Freedom’ Dragon capsule

The International Space Station will receive a few fresh faces tomorrow morning, along with some potentially interesting experiments for on-orbit testing. It will be the fourth crewed mission aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule — this one, dubbed “Freedom,” will be launched atop a Falcon-9 very late tonight — technically tomorrow in the wee hours of the morning. You can watch it below if you’re awake.

This launch was originally scheduled for launch last Saturday, but there was a bit of an unexpected conflict with the AX-1 mission, which had its departure and splashdown delayed. But now Crew-4 is back on track and ready to take off from launchpad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Dragon capsule Freedom will carry NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines (who will pilot the craft), Jessica Watkins, and ESAnaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Some familiar names there for anyone who’s followed the ISS’s crews.

Also aboard the Dragon will be (in addition to the usual supplies, fresh fruit and so on) two new experiments, since of course testing in microgravity is precious to many government and private research projects. Here’s what’s going up tomorrow:

Kjell Lindgren eats some XROOTS lettuce during Expedition 44. He won’t get to eat any this time, sadly. Image Credits: SpaceX

And the crew going up will continue missions in hydroponic plant growth (“Crew-4 members are not expected to eat the XROOTS plants”), a student code project sponsored by JAXA where kids get to control an Astrobee, and a test of a modified off-the-shelf device for diagnosing certain medical conditions that they hope will continue to work in space.

The launch is scheduled for no earlier than 3:52 a.m. EDT, but it’ll be a long cruise to the ISS after that — assuming the launch happens on time, it’ll be 16 hours in the capsule before they approach the ISS for docking. There’s a full schedule of events here, but just tune into the YouTube live broadcast starting a couple hours before launch to catch it all as it happens:

Launchpad hiccups indefinitely delay Boeing’s troubled Starliner orbital test

Boeing’s Starliner capsule is leaving the launchpad after a series of delays that prevented takeoff over the last few days. NASA and the beleaguered aerospace giant will take “whatever time is necessary” to find and fix the issue, but it’s beginning to feel like this long-in-development spacecraft may never make it to the ISS.

This the second major launch attempt after the Starliner failed to enter the correct orbit in a 2019 launch. The rescheduled ISS rendezvous launch was originally scheduled for March of this year, but eventually delayed to this week. A valve issue prompted a countdown halt yesterday, but the ground teams have been unable to resolve the problem as the whole operation has had to stand down as a result.

“Engineering teams have ruled out a number of potential causes, including software, but additional time is needed to complete the assessment,” wrote NASA in a news release. “Mission teams have decided to roll the Atlas V and Starliner back to the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) for further inspection and testing where access to the spacecraft is available. Boeing will power down the Starliner spacecraft this evening.”

It’s another major setback for Boeing’s shot at providing crew launch capability, something its rival SpaceX has achieved now multiple times despite originally working on a very similar timeline. Both experienced years of delays, but ultimately Crew Dragon was successfully piloted to the ISS while Starliner is yet to make a successful orbital trip at all, let alone one with astronauts on board.

Some may wonder whether this is throwing good money after bad, since the race is apparently lost. But Boeing knows better than many that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and that the demand for orbital launches is nearly insatiable. Even if SpaceX has a multi-year lead on Boeing, Boeing has a multi-year lead on some of its other competitors and if it can get Starliner working there will likely be enough customers to make even its tortuous development worthwhile.

Depending on how quickly this valve issue is resolved, it could be weeks or months before there’s another launch attempt.

SpaceX successfully launches astronauts with a re-used Dragon spacecraft for the first time

SpaceX has another successful human space launch to its credit, after a good takeoff and orbital delivery of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Friday morning. The Dragon took off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM EDT). On board were four astronauts, including NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, as well as JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and the ESA’s Thomas Pesquet.

This was Spacex’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA, after its Crew-1 operation last year. Unlike Crew-1, Crew-2 included use of two re-flown components in the spacecraft system, including the first stage booster, which was used during the Crew-1 launch, and the Dragon capsule, which was used for SpaceX’s first ever human spaceflight, the final demonstration mission of its spacecraft certification program for NASA, which flew Bob Behnken (side note: this mission’s pilot, McArthur, is Behnken’s wife) and Doug Hurley to the ISS. SpaceX has characterized the use of re-flown elements as arguably even safer than using new ones, with CEO Elon Musk noting that you wouldn’t want to be on the “first flight of an airplane when it comes out of the factory” during a conversation with XPRIZE’s Peter Diamandis on Thursday evening.

Now that the Crew Dragon is in its target transfer orbit, it’ll be making its way to rendezvous with the Space Station, which will take just under 24 hours. It’ll be docking with the station early tomorrow morning, attaching to a docking port that was just cleared earlier this month when SpaceX’s other Crew Dragon relocated to another port on the ISS earlier this month.

This launch also included a recovery attempt for the booster, with a landing at sea using SpaceX’s drone landing pad. That went as planned, meaning this booster which has already flown two different sets of human astronauts, could be used to fly yet another after refurbishment.

SpaceX’s Commercial Crew program with NASA continues to be the key success story in the agency’s move to partner with more private companies for its research and space exploration missions. NASA also recently tapped SpaceX to develop the human landing system for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program, and which will use SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft. For SpaceX’s human spaceflight program, the next big milestone will be its first flight of a mission made up entirely of paying private citizens, which is currently set to take place this fall.

SpaceX makes history with successful first human space launch

SpaceX made history today, flying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch, titled ‘Demo-2’, is for the final demonstration mission in the human rating process of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, meaning that once this mission is complete, the launch vehicle will finally be certified for operational use for regular transportation of people to space. This was the second attempt, after an initial launch try last Wednesday was scrubbed due to weather conditions.

This is the first time ever that humans have been aboard a SpaceX vehicle as it launched. To date, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have succeeded in delivering multiple cargo payloads to orbit, but Behnken and Hurley are the first people to make the trip with the private spaceflight company.

SpaceX also successfully landed its first stage booster from the Falcon 9 used today – which means it will recover the first private spacecraft booster that has ever delivered human astronauts to space.

NASA created the Commercial Crew space program to spur the development of private launch vehicles that would also be able to serve commercial customers in addition to the agency, in order to defray the cost of launch overall. Both SpaceX and Boeing ended up placing winning bids on the Commercial Crew contracts, and have subsequently developed human launch systems, though SpaceX is the first to actually fly people on their vehicle after Boeing encountered some unexpected issues in their last uncrewed demonstration flight.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley bump fists to celebrate their history-making launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

It’s been multiple decades since a human took off from U.S. soil on a brand new launch vehicle, and this is also the first time anyone has flown to space from an American launch site since the Space Shuttle program was officially retired in 2011. Returning U.S. spaceflight capabilities also means NASA won’t have to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos and its Soyuz spacecraft exclusively to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) – could save more than $30 million per astronaut per trip as a result.

Today’s launch kicks off a multi-week mission for Behnken and Hurley, which next involves a rendezvous with the ISS around 19 hours from now. Crew Dragon will first take around 30 minutes to perform a manual control test, wherein Behnken and Hurley will take over and fly the spacecraft themselves. This isn’t what would normally happen on a normal Crew Dragon mission, since the spacecraft is designed to make the trip to ISS on its own operating entirely in an automated manner.

After that manual control test, Crew Dragon will once again take over and then fly the remainder of the way to the ISS, where it’ll dock itself with an entry hatch on the station. From there, Behnken and Hurley will transfer over to the station, where they’re set to stay for a period of between six and sixteen weeks, depending on NASA’s determination of how long the mission should last. This is somewhat dependent on staffing requirements on board the ISS, since currently there’s only one U.S. astronaut there in an operational capacity, and Hurley and Behnken will be tasked with assisting with experiments and maintenance on the station.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – MAY 30: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches into space with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (R) and Doug Hurley aboard the rocket from the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The inaugural flight is the first manned mission since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States. (Photo by Saul Martinez/Getty Images)

Once it’s determined when they’re coming back, they’ll climb back aboard the Crew Dragon, seal it up and then detach from the station. This return part of the program is also designed to be fully automated, with the spacecraft preforming the necessary boost-back engine firing to control its re-entry and descent. Once in atmosphere, it’ll release its parachutes to slow the fall back to Earth, and coast to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX crews will recover the capsule and provide the astronauts their ride back to dry land.

SpaceX plans to begin flying astronauts to the ISS for fully, regular operational missions later this year if all goes well, and it has also signed agreements to begin offering berths to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips (likely with an extremely high price tag) as early as next year.

Up close with the fresh new spacesuits astronauts will soon wear in orbit for the first time

Inside the first American spacecraft to take humans to orbit since the Space Shuttle launching today are, well, humans. And those humans are wearing brand new spacesuits that are also making a historic debut. Ahead of today’s launch (which you can watch here), NASA and SpaceX gave a fresh look at the new suits, which we may be seeing much more of soon.

The spacesuits were designed by SpaceX in collaboration with NASA and the astronauts going up today, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. They’re intended to bring modern materials and technology to a comfortable form factor that integrates seamlessly with the Crew Dragon capsule.

These aren’t, it is important to note, a replacement for the familiar EVA suits that have been in use for decades, though those are also being redesigned in-house. The ones Behnken and Hurley will wear are pressure suits, akin to what fighter jet pilots wear. These custom-fitted garments are meant to provide protection against the dangers of launch, including brief periods of vacuum or high heat, but not outer space.

The SpaceX suits are flame- and impact-resistant and have communications and climate control built right in. The helmet has the radio and mics, naturally, and air and electricity flow through a single umbilical cable that connects to the wearer’s seat in the spacecraft.

“One of the things that was important in the development of this suit was to make it easy to use, something that the crew just has to literally plug in when they sit down, and then the suit kind of takes care of itself from there,” said SpaceX’s Chris Tripp in the NASA video highlighting the suits. “It’s really part of the vehicle, so we think of it as a kind of suit-seat system.”

Considering the advances that have been made over the last decade in electronics and software, astronauts and mission control should expect improved and simplified communications — the kind of noise reduction and voice detection we expect in our video calls nowadays is also very useful in aerospace.

Another interesting change is in the gloves, which must be durable yet flexible, and at the same time conductive — because the astronauts operate the Dragon capsule via touchscreen. It would be no good if they had to take off a glove to make a selection.

“[We] worked with them to define the way you interface with it — the way your touches actually registered on the display, in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, not potentially putting in a wrong input,” Behnken said in a recent NASA press conference.

Like everything else aboard the capsule, the suits will be put to their first full-scale test today, though of course they’ve been through all kinds of in-house evaluations before.

“It took us three almost four years to design suits that both look good and work well,” said SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk in a recent interview. “we want to inspire kids to say that that one day they want to wear that uniform… get them fired up about, ‘Yeah, I want to be an astronaut. I want to be our work on aerospace engineering, on advanced spaceflight.’ What today is about is reigniting the dream of space.”

‘This is certainly different’: Astronauts on controlling the Dragon spacecraft via touchscreen

Building a brand new spacecraft means knowing when to innovate and when to stick to flight-proven methods, and for Crew Dragon, SpaceX decided to ditch the buttons and dials and go full touchscreen. The astronauts who will fly it later this month have had likewise to ditch years of training and muscle memory — but it’s not all bad, they say.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two astronauts soon to launch to the International Space Station aboard a Dragon capsule, will be the first to actually fly the craft in space.

“It’s probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship, and I’m lucky enough to get that opportunity with my good friend here,” said Behnken in a press interview broadcast by NASA .

Of course they’re more than adequately prepared — not only have they spent countless hours in simulators, but they collaborated with SpaceX from early days.

“It was on the order of at least 5 or 6 years ago that we went out to SpaceX and evaluated a bunch of different control mechanisms,” said Hurley. “They were looking at every which way of flying the vehicle, and ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface.”

“Of course, you know, growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different,” he continued. “But we went into it with a very open mind, I think, and worked with them to define the way you interface with it — the way your touches actually registered on the display, in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, not potentially putting in a wrong input.”

Compare the photo at the top of the story with the following shot of the physical simulator where astronauts learn to pilot the Russian Soyuz capsule:

Not a lot of leg room in either one, to be honest.

And of course even modern aircraft are still a mess of physical controls, no doubt familiar to the pilot but inarguably dated in design.

Behnke pointed out that these spacecraft are made with a very specific purpose in mind: Going to and docking with the ISS. No one is going to Mars in one of these things, and that impacts how they’re designed and piloted.

“The flying task is very unique: To come close to the space station and fly in proximity, then slowly come into contact, is maybe a little bit different from what you would see for flying a space shuttle or an aircraft,” said Behnke with characteristic understatement (the difference is night and day). “When we evaluated the touchscreen interface we really did focus on the task at hand and trying to get good performance for that specific task.”

A prototype Crew Dragon has already launched to the ISS and returned, having been piloted both autonomously and remotely.

“It was challenging for us and for them at first to work through those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from the manual flying standpoint with the touchscreen, flies very well,” said Hurley.

“The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting in input, relative to what you would do with a stick,” he continued. “Because you know, when you’re flying an airplane for example, if I push the stick forward it’s going to go down. I actually have to make a concerted effort to do that with the touchscreen, if that makes sense.”

“I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the right answer for all flying is not to switch to a touchscreen, necessarily,” said Behnke. “But for the task that we have and to keep ourselves safe flying close to the ISS, the touchscreen is gonna provide us that capability just fine.”

Hurley pointed out that one major advantage is that the controls and readouts are all in the same place: “You’re seeing the docking target, for example, right in the same place you’re looking to fly the vehicle. So it is a little bit different way of doing it, but the design in general has worked out very well.”

There’s only so much one can learn in a simulator, though, and this first crewed flight is still very much a test, the feedback from which will inform the next iteration of the capsule. It’s easier, after all, to push a software update than to rewire the pots of 20 different knobs in a system that goes back decades.

“We specifically, as part of this test flight, designed in some time in the preflight phase, as well as closer to space station, so we can test out actual manual flying capability of the vehicle,” Hurley explained. “Just to see and verify that it handles the way we expect it to, and the way the simulator shows it to fly. It’s a prudent part of our flight test just like anything else, in case the eventuality happened that a future crew needed to take over manually and fly the spacecraft. So we’re just doing our part, to kinda test out all the different capabilities of the Crew Dragon.”

We are sure to hear more about the version of Crew Dragon that will be flying later this month if everything goes according to plan. In the meantime I have asked both SpaceX and NASA for more information on the control scheme and its development.

Watch how SpaceX’s first human spacecraft performed during its key in-flight escape test

SpaceX is getting ready to launch its first-ever spacecraft with humans on board, the Commercial Crew Demo-2 mission (DM-2) that will take-off from Florida on May 27. There are still a couple things remaining to finish up prior to flight, including a final parachute system test that’s happening later on today. The company also posted a video recap of its most recent uncrewed Crew Dragon flight, the in-flight escape demonstration that it flew on January 19.

The video provides a look at the processes involved in the test, including a look at mission control, with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley looking on during the flight from the ground. You can see the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch with the Crew Dragon attached, as well as watch it explode in a ball of fire (as intended) during the early emergency separation. Then, watch as the capsule itself speeds descends safety back to the ocean where it’s recovered by a SpaceX vessel at sea.

This is a demonstration of a key system that’s designed as a safety measure, to be used only in the unlikely event of a major malfunction of the rocket during the takeoff phase, but after the spacecraft has left the ground. The system works by quickly and automatically propelling the astronaut-carrying Crew Capsule away from the booster and second stage at a very high speed, to ensure the people aboard are at a safe distance in case of any explosions.

Along with a ground escape system for quickly vacating the capsule and launch area before takeoff, there are a number of safety measures required by NASA for any human spaceflight from U.S. soil with astronauts on board. SpaceX has so far demonstrated that these systems are ready to a degree that has satisfied the agency, and now has only a number of pre-flight checks and run-throughs to get through before the historic May 27 mission.

NASA may start using private suborbital flights to train astronauts

Astronauts may make a second home of space, but even they have a first time going up. NASA is hoping to better prepare its crews for the challenges of space by sending them on suborbital flights from the likes of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — suggesting a potentially huge new market for the nascent private spaceflight industry.

Speaking at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers conference in March, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained that the agency was considering private carriers now mainly because previously, the possibility simply didn’t exist.

“That’s a capability we as a nation have not had until recently,” he said, in remarks reported by

Indeed it is not entirely clear we have it even now. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have both demonstrated suborbital flights that have skimmed the very verge of space, but test flights and commercial flights to order are very different.

While Virgin is already selling tickets, there’s no date set for the first flight with passengers. That flight will likely be this year, but without a reliable schedule and record of successful missions it’s hard to say that the capability is anything but aspirational at present. That’s the nature of space travel — 99 percent of the way is still nowhere.

Still, it seems inevitable that Virgin, Blue, or another provider will, some time in the next few years, offer suborbital flights with space for payloads and passengers. That’s something NASA seems hot to take them up on.

It’s rather strange, but equally inescapable, that astronauts have to do all their training here on Earth. They can take do all the simulators, “vomit comet” flights, and pool training they like — but in the end, the only way to experience space is to go there.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will fly in the first Commercial Crew demo mission to the ISS, operate a simulator of the Crew Dragon capsule.

Until quite recently that meant getting on top of a hundred million dollar rocket and going up to the ISS, or in earlier days to the Moon in an orbiter or lander.

There’s very little one can do to prepare for that, but among those few things is going to space more cheaply and temporarily. That’s what suborbital flights make possible.

The rocket-powered ascent out of the atmosphere and resulting minutes of weightlessness are a suitable venue for training, testing, and other operations that might otherwise have had to take place in orbit. And that’s what NASA is hoping will take place — though no contracts have been signed just yet.

Although the first few suborbital flights from these providers were practically guaranteed to sell out, space tourism isn’t a proven industry and events like the present pandemic and inevitable economic downturn afterwards may in fact have a serious impact on such high-ticket items (or the ability to provide them). So the prospect of regular government contracts is almost certainly a huge relief to any company aiming to provide or support suborbital flights.

“This is a big shift for NASA, but it’s an important shift,” Bridenstine said. The shift is not simply relying more on private industry, which government programs have done lately, but using private flights as official training. He indicated that the flights would need to be extremely safe, though not quite to the same standards as flights to the ISS.

More training and testing, but on flights not actually run by NASA, would both increase preparedness for new missions, speed up readiness, and reduce complexity of existing programs that rely on NASA-flown missions for those capabilities. I’ve asked the agency for more information on this topic and will update the post if I hear back.

Coronavirus rattles NASA, but Commercial Crew and Mars Perseverance rover are on track

Most of NASA’s facilities around the country have been shut down, and while some teams can work (and drive a Mars rover) from home, others are knuckling down to get some crucial missions out the door — or face a half-billion-dollar late fee, said agency head Jim Bridenstine.

In an interview with the Planetary Society published today, Bridenstine discussed a variety of interesting topics, but none more immediately salient than the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on NASA’s work.

With projects tentatively scheduled for as long as a decade out, there’s plenty of wiggle room. But not every mission has that luxury, he explained, and the two that have been deemed truly essential — and therefore warranting NASA employees actually coming in to work — are the Commercial Crew program and the Mars Perseverance rover (formerly known as Mars 2020 and recently renamed in a very cute contest).

Commercial Crew has SpaceX and Boeing competing to provide an American-built alternative to the Soyuz spacecraft we’ve been using exclusively to send astronauts to the International Space Station since we retired the last Space Shuttle in 2011.

“That’s an essential function really for one reason. We have to make sure that we have access to the International Space Station, which is a $100 billion investment by the American taxpayer,” Bridenstine said. “So that mission is going forward.”

Going forward as early as next month, in fact, a date that has remained remarkably solid during a tough time for industries around the world, and in a program that has seen any number of speculative deadlines come and go.

Later in the interview he clarified that the Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules are not meant to be complete and permanent replacements for the Soyuz and Russian launch vehicles, but an alternative to make sure access is assured and the relationship to Russia isn’t one of dependency. Late last year a Soyuz failure nearly led to the ISS being empty for the first time ever, but quick work by investigators got things going again quickly. Having multiple vehicles ready to go would reduce the likelihood of that kind of crisis occurring.

The second mission that has been deemed essential is the next Mars rover, Perseverance.

“That’s mission essential for one reason and that is that we have a very limited launch window to go to Mars,” explained Bridenstine.

Unlike satellites going to orbit or even missions to the Moon, which have long and frequent launch windows, spacecraft going to Mars must be launched at times when our two planets are at very specific points in their orbit, in order to have shorter travel time and arrive precisely at the location planned. Interplanetary travel is a very exact science, and failing to get Perseverance out the door on time (July 17 in this case) would be disastrous.

“If we miss that launch window, it will cost us upwards of $500 million over the course of two years, if not wreck the mission altogether, which we do not want to have happen,” Bridenstine said.

He was careful to add that this would not be accomplished at the cost of NASA employees’ health:

They’re going to work with as many precautions as we can attain. We’re spreading the people apart. We’re putting people on different shifts, so they’re not at work at the same time. And then using PPE [personal protective equipment] when and where appropriate.

Look, if there’s anybody in the NASA workforce that doesn’t feel comfortable doing what they’re doing, we want them to say so and we want them to feel free to do something else. We wanna help them in fact do something else. We don’t want anybody to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Our employees are the number one highest priority of the agency and we want everybody to feel safe in this very unique moment in time. And so we’re giving people a lot of latitude so that they feel safe and there will be no judgment on them at all.

As for projects that may face delays after all, Bridenstine admitted that the agency’s next-generation launch vehicle, the Space Launch System, or SLS, is in “a tough spot.” Its first test, Artemis I, is scheduled for the end of 2021, but may very well slip to 2022, he admitted. But he noted that Artemis II, the SLS’s second launch, is being prepared for independently and isn’t highly dependent on the timing of the first.

The ambitious plan to put boots on the Moon in 2024 was already considered something of a long shot, and the pandemic is making it look significantly longer. But at least in the short term, NASA’s truly critical operations are continuing and this spring and summer will, if all goes well (and let us hope it does), host successful and historic missions.

You can read or listen to the full interview with Bridenstine on Planetary’s podcast here.