NASA and SpaceX targeting mid-to-late May for first astronaut launch, despite coronavirus pandemic

NASA and SpaceX issued a media accreditation invitation on Wednesday for their Demonstration Mission 2 (aka Demo-2) commercial crew launch – the first in the commercial crew program that will carry actual astronauts to space. The invite includes the current proposed timeframe for the mission, listed as no “no earlier than mid-to-late May.”

Reports from earlier in the year had pegged the launch window for May, with the possibility that SpaceX and NASA could move that to as early as April, or as late as June, depending on the preparedness of the spacecraft and crew. SpaceX was reportedly early on readying the Crew Dragon spacecraft that would be flying the mission, but NASA also changed the mission parameters to include a longer stay at the International Space Station for the crew going up on the demo mission, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

This will be the first time ever that astronauts fly aboard a SpaceX spacecraft, and the first crewed mission for the commercial crew program, through which NASA is working with private company launch operators to return human spaceflight capabilities to American soil. All current astronaut transportation to and from the International Space Station is accomplished through a partnership with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, which flies crews using its Soyuz spacecraft.

So far, NASA and SpaceX haven’t seemed to be anticipating much of a change to the timing of their first crewed Dragon mission in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This invitation from NASA is the most detailed confirmation yet that the mission is still on as of right now, and tracking towards a launch window that seems unchanged from plans prior to the implementation of strict social distancing and isolation measures as the COVID-19 epidemic flared across the U.S.

NASA recently moved all of its facilities to a ‘Stage 3’ state of contingency operation, which means all employees are on mandatory telework unless they’re required to be physically present in office for mission-related activity. NASA’s Ames facility has been escalated to Stage 4, because of the ‘shelter-in-place’ order in effect in the California county in which it resides, which means that the facility is closed and only telework is permitted.

In the invitation issued to media today, NASA says that it’s “proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it evolves” and will “communicate any updates that may impact mission planing or media access, as they become available.” The agency is also taking extra precautions to protect the health of Hurley and Behnken, in addition to standard isolation procedures already in place to prevent them from getting sick ahead of a spaceflight mission.