Austin, Texas (CNN Business)SpaceX’s chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, on Friday asked space enthusiasts to stay home to watch footage of the company’s first-ever crewed mission take off from Florida next month amid the Covid-19 pandemic. She added that SpaceX has put measures in place aimed at ensuring the safety of the two astronauts who will pilot that mission and for the company’s broader workforce.
Shotwell’s comments struck a very different tone than SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has taken on Twitter lately, where he has repeatedly expressed his belief that the United States’ coronavirus response is overblown and shared misinformation about its threat.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine last month asked spectators not to crowd Florida’s beaches and viewing sites along Florida’s Space Coast to watch SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft hurtle toward the ISS, as they have for the launch of nearly every crewed US mission since Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space in 1961.
NASA has also halted most of its major programs as it seeks to keep workers safe. Most of its ongoing work is related to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon mission or its new Mars rover, nicknamed Perserverance, which must launch this summer before the planet moves too far from Earth.
SpaceX iitself has stayed mostly silent about coronavirus, apart from Musk’s tweets. The company has kept up work on its major projects — including launching batches of satellites into space in its effort to build a multibillion-dollar telecom business, and testing early prototypes of a futuristic spacecraft, Starship, which Musk hopes will carry people to the moon or Mars.
Shotwell’s remarks Friday marked the first time the company has publicly shared details about its response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, who are frequently at SpaceX facilities for training, are wearing masks and gloves and are permitted to be around only “essential personnel,” Shotwell said. SpaceX is also cleaning the training facilities twice a day, she added.
At least half of the company’s engineering staff is working from home, she said, and employees who must be hands-on at SpaceX facilities are wearing masks, practicing social distancing guidelines and having their temperatures taken.
“We are nothing if our employees aren’t in great health and and able to work with a clear mind,” Shotwell told reporters during a Friday press conference about SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch later this month.
SpaceX’s crewed mission, slated for May 27, will mark NASA’s first human spaceflight launch from US soil in nearly a decade. Bridenstine said NASA and SpaceX are pushing forward with the mission amid the pandemic because it’s critical to maintain normal operations on board the International Space Station, where a rotation of astronauts has lived since 2000.
It will also be the first crewed mission for SpaceX since its founding 18 years ago.
“It is a shame that more people are not going to be able to enjoy it in, in Florida,” Shotwell said. “However, it is the right thing to do. Watch it from home, watch it online, watch, watch it on TV.”