It’s probably obvious that New Space projects are going to be hammered by the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic. Some of the impacts we can expect:
- Startup companies having a harder time obtaining venture capital.
- Large companies sending large parts of their workforce home, as is NASA.
- The Vice President, who heads the National Space Council, also heads the US Covid-19 Task Force. Guess which one will take priority.
The biggest impacts will be on HARDWARE. Until we have fully robotized factories for space systems, sending people home means hardware isn’t getting built. If we look at Artemis, NASA’s program to return humans to the Moon, the two key impacts will be on the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule, since those are already in development. The LANDER–which NASA is in the process of selecting from recently submitted proposals–isn’t very far along, and so some design work should be able to continue. Interestingly, NASA’s Associate Administrator for human exploration, Doug Loverro, recently decided that the Lunar Gateway is no longer in the critical path. He didn’t make that decision because of Covid-19, but fortuitously it reduces the challenge that NASA will face after the epidemic subsides.
There are two key areas that might not be severely impacted: SOFTWARE and CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT. In many (but not all) cases, software development can continue in a work-from-home situation. Security needs to be considered here, of course. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is developing the software for SLS, which hopefully will move forward. Mission planning, business case development, architecture concepts, and roadmap development should probably be able to proceed unabated. And it is in these activities that most of the really exciting concepts live right now: reusable in-space transportation, lunar resource utilization, habitat development.
This is the time that THINKING can pull us forward–if new approaches are conceived, perhaps the damage done by Covid-19 to moving humanity into the solar system might not be so bad. For example: what if we take SLS out of the loop for Artemis, and re-scope it to use commercial launch vehicles? That might cause some lander redesign, but that’s not very far along anyway. We do NOT have to accept the status quo, and we do NOT have to succumb to depression over the impact of this virus.
Let’s be determined to get humans back to the Moon. Let’s be determined to grow the space economy. Let’s win this.