Is going to space truly essential during a pandemic?

Moon-mining machinations are perhaps the most grandiose example of space work continuing through the pandemic, but they’re far from the only ones. Few might immediately think of astronauts as essential workers or rocket launches as mandatory for the nation’s survival. But based on the permitted activities of both NASA and private companies, space has managed to encounter relatively few interruptions or delays compared to more present-tense industries. 

In some ways, space isn’t so much essential as it is inertial — sometimes literally (as in the case of the planetary alignment-contingent launch of the Perseverance rover to Mars, scheduled for mid-July) but often bureaucratically. Well before anyone even gets to the point of a socially distanced rocket launch, there are budgets to be approved, contracts to be issued and lots and lots of technical work. It’s a huge investment, which is one reason NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine offered for the agency’s continued work supporting the International Space Station (ISS) — which, because it’s collectively owned and maintained by five space agencies, could be understood as both technically and diplomatically essential.

In some ways, space isn’t so much essential as it is inertial

In an interview with the Planetary Society’s podcast, Bridenstine described the ISS as a “$100 billion investment by the American taxpayer.” That investment includes the cost of sending astronauts to the ISS, which for years has happened at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome to the tune of $80 million per seat (in 2019, four American astronauts went). The crewed launch of astronauts to the ISS from Florida scheduled for May 27 — the first crewed launch on American soil since 2011 — could be seen as essential because it not only supports ISS operations but also demonstrates that the United States can stop paying Russia to send our astronauts to space.

“Our mission fortunately hasn’t really been impacted by COVID-19, at least not directly,” said Ken Shields, chief operating officer of the ISS National Lab, in an interview with Engadget. Since March, crew have returned from and been sent to the ISS, and research continues relatively uninterrupted. 

That’s good, since interruptions in space are risky. “In terms of supply chains, the ISS is a pretty precarious place,” explained Fred Scharmen, associate professor in architecture at Morgan State University and researcher of space habitats. Describing the conditions for the rotating crew of the ISS, Scharmen noted, “Those people are trapped up there. They can’t grow their own food, they don’t even do their laundry up there.” (Laundry, along with other garbage, is actually burned up on reentry to Earth’s atmosphere.) It’s kind of important to keep taking care of the people on the ISS.

It’s also important to keep taking care of the research: There aren’t exactly alternative locations for long-term experiments in microgravity (which is of interest to biologists and material scientists), and the ISS’ location in low Earth orbit makes it a unique spot for collecting data for earth sciences. “Most of the research that we plan needs some level of crew attendance,” Shields said. “There are some things that a human in the loop can do that no amount of automation can equal.” A lot of that research is tied to academic institutions and to grant budgets that don’t have a pause button for a pandemic. Inserting an 18-month gap into sometimes multiyear research may not be a loss on that $100 billion investment, but it certainly is a loss to science.