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is space conquest "essential" in a pandemic?

May 5, 2020


by Arnaud Saint-Martin, sociologist and researcher with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientific (CNRS) 



If there is one technological sector where the confinement required by the Covid-19 pandemic crisis is disastrous, it's in astronautics.



Even during the pandemic, NASA's communication machine never stops selling the myth of space conquest, with now Tom Cruise at the helm
Even during the pandemic, NASA's communication machine never stops selling the myth of space conquest, with now Tom Cruise at the helm

After decades of NASA's cultural propaganda, for which we saw today a new episode with the announcement of a new movie with Tom Cruise to be filmed in space, space as the "new frontier" presents itself indeed as if the sky is the limit and is undisputed in the United States. The interviews of the leading astronauts of the agency, mentioning the cloistering of the manned flight, were able to entertain the general public for a short time, but they cannot hide the worry felt by the members of the space ground crew.


This collective apprehension is all the more tangible that political officials are forcing the professionals of government agencies and parapublic industries today to prouve how their activities are deemed "essential" (in order to be able to work during the confinement), when usually they are presented as exceptional and as a defining representation of the American spirit of exploration. What projets and programs are such a priority to the nation that interrupting them is unthinkable during the confinement? On the other hand, what could be put on hold for a few weeks - at the risk of being definitely shut down when the budget crisis to come will require more drastic measures? For the field of astronautics, the pandemic has become both a test in resilience and an existential dilemma.


In the space segments that are the most operational, starting with infrastructure maintenance and ongoing missions, stopping is not an option. It would be hard to fathom interrupting operations in the mission control and surveillance centers of satellites such as Hubble, of probes such as Juno and also the rover Curiosity on Mars, no more than disconnecting with the International Space Station, operated by the Houston Johnson Space Center mission control. On the other hand, continued work on future programs and missions has been suspended until further notice as a precautionary measure. Covid-19 cases have indeed been found in NASA centers in the beginning of March. The institution, well-versed in managing crises and used to interruptions like those created by the government shutdowns (last year once again) [1], has put in place a protocol [2]. Working from home was upheld in all of its locations as of March 23rd.


Stopping production in programs whose budgets exceed the tens of billions of dollars still introduces a high cost, and even more when their progress suffers delays. So is the James Webb Space Telescope integration stopped, as well as the assembly and tests on the heavy-lift launch vehicle Space Launch System and the Orion capsule equipment that is supposed to bring the NASA astronauts to the Moon, Mars and beyond (through the Artemis program and the first steps intended in 2024)? So adjustments will have to me made, delays as well. Managing these technical systems is proving to be a conundrum because any change that is made instigates a domino effect in the schedule, already constricted by the budget votes of the Congress and the eventual international cooperations.

Construction of SpaceX, Boca Chica spaceships, Texas, February 2020, Credits ASM.
Construction of SpaceX, Boca Chica spaceships, Texas, February 2020, Credits ASM.

So the directors of the agency's head office in Washington have to make choices. Some missions considered a priority cannot be postponed, for example the Mars 2020 mission that will bring the rover Perseverance bound for the Red Planet this coming summer, thanks to Earth converging with it. The launch calendar is not experiencing the crisis either. Private operators cooperating with NASA are keeping the pace, as seen with SpaceX. From the launch pad 39A it is renting from the Kennedy Center, the company's rocket Falcon-9 took off with around sixty new Starlink satellite mega-constellations under its hat, and its deployment could be seen to the naked eye. The launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft operated by SpaceX for NASA is still scheduled for May 27 this year at Cape Canaveral. Crucial for American space travel since it must take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on a launch vehicle built in the United States, this take-off will be done without a general public close to the launch pad, a break from a long tradition. Tens of thousands of space enthusiasts who would have traveled to Florida will have to be satisfied with a direct transmission on NASA TV [3]...


If NASA knows how to deal with interruptions, it is more tenuous in other areas of the industry. Events and trade fairs have been cancelled, "non-essential" employees sent home - or simply dismissed. The manufacturers, large and small, defer to the good graces of the Federal government while waiting to resume. Bankrolling is plentiful in the United States, but it still necessitates that it be available. Space Force, a new Defense agency being created, is not operational yet, but requests for subsidies and contracts in this respect are urgent. Emergency funds are currently being negotiated in Washington which should help space companies overcome the crisis. Investment groups and industry representatives appeal to how vital these exceptional injections are, without which the United States could lose part of their drive toward worldwide political and cultural supremacy. There is no NASA without Boeing or SpaceX, and vice-versa, in the field of aeronautics that is very dependent on federal spending.


In passing, it is rather ironic to see circulating a consensual speech between the commercial space business owners and insurance brokers, consisting in highlighting the government's intervention to save American industry from imminent death. The same spokespersons of "New Space" who, since the 1990s and more agressively after 2010, have extoled free entreprise and "private" technological entrepreneurship, have increased their distress calls and industrial patriotism propaganda. For the activists of the "neo-spatial" cause, such as Rick Tumlinson, the pandemic is a "darwinian" trial [4] that will reveal company owners' resilience, but also the "business as usual", their ability to access the federal, civil and military agencies' stimulus funds. In the satellite application field, some companies will know how to play their cards right in this morbid game, starting with those who sell in geospatial imagery and information, useful for managing a crisis, and those who run telecommunication satellite constellations or promise internet everywhere.

 Elon Musk, who needs no introduction being such a strong presence in the public eye, is a perfect example of the way space business owners consider themselves outside of the sphere of normal activity. He started by minimizing the facts: on March 6, he tweeted "The coronavis panic is dumb" [5]. The SpaceX and Tesla boss had no intention then of interrupting production in his factories, for the simple reason that everything that comes out of it would be, reading between the lines, absolutely "esssential". This attitude is still very present concerning the future Starship vessel prototypes assembled in the center of Boca Chica, in southern Texas. Going to the Moon, then Mars, and therefore making humanity a "multiplanitary species", would be a priority. Apparently, up to a degree this has convinced people in high places since NASA just announced that the Starship will be integrated and partially financed as part of the Artemis program that plans a lasting return to the Moon as soon as 2024, just like the "national team's" lander, led by Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' space company. The fact remains that, as suggested by the journalist Jeff Foust in his recent particularly pertinent editorial, one can wonder in what way does building this vehicle - with no clear business plan and no real demands with respect to national security - is sufficiently urgent to justify employing hundreds of people on site during this confinement period [6]...

In any case, the health crisis, here as in elsewhere, will have served to expose a number of professionals who live off of the "new frontier" fantasies, are prompt to see themselves as indispensable to the survival of a human species in danger, whose salvation would be found in settling, more or less on a short deadline, beyond the Kármán line. Unless the virus comes along for the ride....



Apollo's historic mission control in Houston ("Houston, we have a problem"...). No one inside, and for good reason, it's a historic monument now. (Photo ASM)



[1] All non-essential federal government activities stop when Congress refuses to vote on the budget.

[2] "NASA Response Framework" (as of May 3, 2020) », Read on May 4, 2020.

[3] It is uncertain whether the space enthusiasts will autocensure themselves, despite the recommendations of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine...Stephen Clark, "Citing coronavirus, NASA urges public not to travel for launch of astronauts",, April 24, Read on May 4, 2020.

[4] Rick Tumlinson, "Space startups, Darwin and the coronavirus",, April 21, 2020, Read on May 4, 2020.

[5] Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweets that "coronavirus panic is dumb",, March 6, 2020, Read on May 4, 2020.

[6] Jeff Foust, "Rethinking what space activities are essential", SpaceNews, April 23, 2020, p. 32. 

Arnaud Saint-Martin is a sociologist with CNRS, at the Centre Européen de Sociologie et de Science Politique (CNRS, EHESS, Paris 1). Specialized in the sociological study of science and technology, he did an investigation on the rise of "NewSpace", which brought him to observe at ground level how astronautics are structured in the United States.