Space enterprises, both NASA and commercial, fall prey to the coronavirus pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has placed a lot of enterprises on hold. Space has been no exception.
For example, according to Space News, Bigelow Aerospace has laid off its entire workforce and has ceased operations. The decision was taken in response to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s (D) edict to close down all “non-essential businesses” in the state in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The company is confident that it will be able to rehire a workforce after the crisis is over. However, some outside experts suggest that the move is a death knell for the company.
Robert Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace’s CEO, is also founder of Budget Suites, a hotel chain. Hotels are being especially hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. However, Bigelow may be able to score some of the massive stimulus money that has been appropriated to save the American economy and hence rise from the dead.
Bigelow’s road has been much longer than expected. The company licensed a technology called transhab from NASA that consisted of inflatable space station modules. Its goal then as now was to build private space stations and perhaps lunar and Mars bases using such modules, which would be launched, inflated and then outfitted.
Bigelow has met with more success than most space startups that have come and gone. The company orbited two test modules called Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Bigelow provided a smaller test module that has been attached to the International Space Station and is being used as a storage area and test article.
Bigelow followed up success with a misstep by declining to compete for a NASA contract to provide a series of further modules to attach to the ISS. That contract has been awarded to Bigelow’s main competitor, Axiom Space.
Bigelow still dreams of creating its own private space station based around its huge B330 module. The company has been awaiting the development of a private launch sector that would allow the transport of people and cargo to and from that orbital facility. NASA is interested in renting space in a private space station once the operational life of the ISS ends.
Bigelow’s dream of private space stations and even lunar bases is not the only high frontier venture that has been deferred by the coronavirus pandemic. NASA itself has been obliged to defer a “green run” test of its mighty Space Launch System moon rocket and halt preparations for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.
However, the first commercial crew test flight of the SpaceX Crewed Dragon with astronauts is still a go, along with the launch of the Mars Perseverance Rover. NASA has been compelled to make judgment calls about what is and what is not worth risking its workforce to exposure to the coronavirus.
Speaking of judgment calls. SpaceX is still in business. Elon Musk’s company is still busily developing its Starship rocket in Boca Chica, Texas. On the other hand, SpaceX has postponed a commercial satellite launch from Florida.
While the coronavirus pandemic has not halted the drive to create a spacefaring civilization, it has certainly slowed down the process. It stands between now and a future where humans live and work in great numbers in low Earth orbit, on the moon and on Mars.
The same spirit that put men on the moon and will, in the fullness of time, men and women back on the lunar surface are driving research efforts to find tests and treatments for the coronavirus. The effort is heroic and involves multiple paths to lifting the scourge from our planet.
An antibody test will be able to determine whether or not one has had the coronavirus. Many cases are so asymptomatic that one may not be aware that one has had the disease. The test will show who is immune and thus able to return to work.
A number of treatments, including drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, which are used to treat other conditions, are being tested. One or more such treatments could lessen the severity of a coronavirus attack, lift the burden on hospitals and ensure that it is not a death sentence. Ultimately a vaccine will put an end to the pandemic and all the horrors and inconveniences that have attended it.
Then commercial firms such as Bigelow and SpaceX, as well as NASA, can continue to summon a spacefaring future with the coronavirus pandemic just a bump in the road to the stars.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.