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Nasa’s 2024 manned Moon mission facing coronavirus-related delays

Image credit: NASA

Nasa’s plans for a manned mission to the Moon by 2024 could be dealt a major blow by the coronavirus outbreak, the agency’s administrator Jim Bridenstine has admitted.

It has been forced to shut two of its rocket production facilities after an employee tested positive for the illness, including its Michoud facility in New Orleans. This facility is where it is building the Moon rocket, or Space Launch System (SLS).

In the last few months the agency has been drip feeding new breakthroughs it has made towards the trip including an astronaut space suit and its Moon lander concept.

But the 2024 date was already looking unlikely with a top Nasa manager raising doubts it would be met in September, long before coronavirus-related disruptions occurred.

“We realise there will be impacts to Nasa missions, but as our teams work to analyse the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the Nasa workforce,” Bridenstine said.

The SLS is due to be completed by June of this year, but it has gone drastically over budget by around $1.8bn (£1.4bn).

In addition, the rocket’s developer Boeing has already been forced to restructure the leadership team on the project twice and the company has been suffering its own setbacks from the 737 MAX fiasco alongside recent demands for a Government-backed bailout as airlines around the world grind to a halt.

Bridenstine did not say how long the shutdown of Nasa’s rocket facilities might last but acknowledged that the agency would be required to “temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware.”

On Tuesday, all 11 Nasa centres were placed at Stage 3 of the agency’s coronavirus contingency plans, requiring staff to work remotely except for those assigned to “mission-essential” projects which includes the SLS. But this quickly elevated to stage 4 yesterday, which requires a temporary shutdown of the whole building, after it transpired that an employee had been diagnosed with the virus.

A test flight without any astronauts aboard may also be delayed until after 2021.

The orders essentially put the brakes on Nasa’s accelerated timetable for returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, an achievement viewed as a stepping stone to human exploration of Mars.

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