Investing in Space

The $400 billion space industry is bracing for coronavirus, as two NASA employees test positive

Key Points
  • NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin are just a few of the organizations that have begun to limit business travel and reschedule events.
  • The potential slowdown would hit more than development of hardware, such as spacecraft, with software engineers possibly impacted by a limited ability to work from home if required.
  • NASA's Marshall center in Huntsville, Alabama reported on Friday that an employee tested posted for coronavirus, the second agency center to do so.
  • SpaceX appears to be largely moving forward with normal operations, although CEO Elon Musk reportedly wrote in an email to employees that if they're "feeling ill" that "it's always better to stay home and take care of yourself."
The Atlas V 431 rocket rolled out to the SLC-41 pad December 17 in preparation for the EchoStar XIX satellite launch December 18.
Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance

While schedule delays are nothing new in the business of space, companies in the estimated $400 billion industry are largely bracing for widespread work from home policies that could grind production and development to a halt.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin are just a few of the organizations that have begun to limit business travel, reschedule events and move some workers to remote set-ups. But building complex spacecraft, developing software with high-powered computers and working in research teams will likely be out of the question if the conronavirus pandemic continues to worsen. Johns Hopkins University reported the U.S. has at least 3,244 confirmed cases and the CDC on Sunday urged organizers to cancel in-person events with 50 people or more in attendance throughout the country.

"We have a lot of ambiguity at this moment," Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, the leader of NASA's science division, said at a meeting on Thursday.

Two NASA employees test positive so far

The agency's Marshall center in Huntsville, Alabama reported on Friday that a NASA employee tested posted for coronavirus. Marshall is now in a "Stage 3" response status, meaning that it is requiring employees telework and saying that "access to the center will be restricted to mission-essential personnel only."

"More guidance will follow for those who do not have equipment to work from home or who work in labs or other facilities requiring similar technical equipment that is a fixed asset," Marshall director Jody Singer said in a statement.

Marshall joins NASA's Ames center in Silicon Valley in a "Stage 3" status. Ames had an employee test positive for coronavirus a week ago, although NASA said at the time it believed "exposure at the center has been limited."

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Additionally, the privately-run visitor complex at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida said it will be closed Mar. 16 until further notice, with no visitors allowed.

Two of the space industry's biggest conferences were affected by preventive measures taken in response to coronavirus. The Satellite 2020 conference in Washington, D.C. was cut short early last week and had lighter than expected attendance, while the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado at the end of the month was postponed indefinitely. Both conferences typically draw tens of thousands of attendees.

The months ahead have a full roster of planned launches, many of which require NASA or U.S. military personnel to move forward. The Department of Defense halted even domestic travel for personnel through May 11, although exceptions may be granted for "mission-essential" travel. NASA spokesperson Bettina Inclán told CNBC on Friday that the agency is "proactively monitoring" the situation and has "plans in place to address issues as they arise."

"Currently, the coronavirus has not significantly affected NASA's operations and work continues on track, such as preparations for the upcoming launches of the Mars Perseverance rover mission and NASA's Commercial Crew flight test (SpaceX's Demo2) to the International Space Station, and construction of our James Webb Space Telescope targeted for launch next year," Inclán said in a statement.

SpaceX's first astronaut flight coming up

The SpaceX Demo-2 mission is just a few weeks away, with the company's president saying earlier this week that it aims to launch in May. It would be the first time the company flies astronauts, with two NASA astronauts visiting ISS for at least a few days.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches a test of the company's Crew Dragon capsule.

"As the coronavirus situation continues, we'll make adjustment as appropriate," Inclán said.

SpaceX appears to be moving forward with its operations largely unchanged so far. CEO Elon Musk wrote in a tweet last week that "the coronavirus panic is dumb" and reportedly told employees in an email on Friday that "the risk of death from C19 is *vastly* less than the risk of death from driving your car home."

Musk tweet

However, Musk reportedly did tell employees that if they're "feeling ill" that "it's always better to stay home and take care of yourself."

SpaceX employees in the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California are continuing to work in the meantime. It is unclear how the company's satellite production facility in Redmond, Washington — just outside of Seattle, one of the worst coronavirus hot spots in the U.S. — has been affected. SpaceX did not respond to CNBC's request for comment on measures it is taking in response to the pandemic.

Blue Origin, the space venture of Jeff Bezos, is based in Kent, Washington — another city just outside of Seattle. The company told CNBC it has yet to see an impact to its core operations as a result of coronavirus but that it was prepared if more extensive changes to its business are necessary.

"We are being accommodating to our workforce, financially supporting self-quarantine actions, and enabling those who can work from home to be able to do so. We are also implementing measures to social distance our workforce and keep our facilities clean and safe," Blue Origin vice president of communications Linda Mills said in a statement.

Source: Boeing

Work on some of the nation's most expensive space programs is continuing for the time being, with NASA and Boeing continuing to work in Louisiana on the Space Launch System (SLS). In a statement, NASA said work on SLS is considered "mission critical operations" but that the agency is continuing to closely monitor the coronavirus situation.

Boeing said in a statement that it "not made any changes to our operational engineering support for the International Space Station," with engineers on-site. But the company's Houston facility "is operating in accordance with Boeing's Covid-19 policies," with telecommuting encouraged and reduced face-to-face meetings.

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