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NASA, SpaceX counting down days to first human launch

Despite Musk Twitter storm, coronavirus forces extra precautions to ensure 'critical mission' blasts off.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docks at the International Space Station [File: SpaceX]
While SpaceX founder Elon Musk is facing blistering criticism for calling stay-at-home orders "fascist", officials representing his space company and NASA are trying to allay coronavirus fears. They said Friday that in the run-up to a historic space launch slated for May 27, they are employing additional safety measures to keep their two astronauts, mission control crews and the spacecraft virus free.
This revelation comes despite Musk's repeated statements and tweets railing against county authorities in California in the United States after authorities there extended stay-at-home orders to fight the COVID-19 pandemic through May 31.
Starting late Tuesday night, Musk, who is also the CEO of the California-based Tesla, initiated his ongoing Twitter storm, tweeting "Give people their freedom back!" That was followed Wednesday by an expletive-laden rant on the Telsa earnings call.
During a NASA telephone press conference on Thursday, when a reporter asked NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine for comment on Musk's statements on social-distancing orders, Musk reportedly butted in - before Bridenstine could answer - and told the reporter, "wrong press conference. Move on."In March, at least a dozen SpaceX employees were quarantined because of their exposure to COVID-19.
In just a few weeks, NASA and SpaceX plan to launch NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley in a Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center - the fist time humans will blast off from the United States since the NASA shuttle programme was halted nine years ago.
Behnken and Hurley's flight, Demo-2 Mission, is a final test before Crew Dragon spacecraft is certified for human spaceflight. Once they reach orbit, the astronauts will dock with the International Space Station (ISS), and join NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner for a stay of up to 119 days.
 SpaceX Crew Dragon
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley, right, wearing SpaceX spacesuits, walk through the crew access arm connecting the launch tower to the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft during a dress rehearsal at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the United States [File: SpaceX]

Typically, astronauts undergo a two-week quarantine before launching to the ISS to ensure that they do not bring contagion with them, which was the case for Cassidy, Ivanishin, and Vagner before their April 9 launch.
While Behnken and Hurley will enter their mandatory quarantine on May 16, SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a press conference on Friday that stricter precautions have been taken to safeguard the astronauts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We've had Bob and Doug here for training," Shotwell said. "We are ensuring that only essential personnel are near them. They're wearing masks and gloves. We're cleaning the training facility twice daily."
She said, "We are largely doing the same thing for our employees. We are nothing if our employees aren't in great health and able to work with a clear mind and with a healthy system. So we're taking temperatures. We're wearing masks in public areas. We are social distancing as well. We've got at least half of our engineering staff working from home."
Ever since California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place order on March 19, SpaceX has remained open because it is a US defence contractor and therefore is considered an essential business.
In a separate press conference on Friday, Steve Stich, deputy manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, said, "Obviously with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are taking extra precautions for all the teams supporting the launch and all the phases of flight."
He said, "So in the various control rooms we've laid out those rooms to have at least six feet [two metres] between anybody on a console looking at displays."
The precautions go well beyond providing sanitiser and face masks. Stitch said that starting roughly two weeks ago, all on-site personnel who have and will continue to participate in launch simulations and the launch itself must adhere to the new precautions, which also include some employees working from home.
The next launch simulation is scheduled for Monday, May 4.

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