- NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Tuesday that all staff are now under a mandatory order to work from home „until further notice“ due to the ongoing spread of coronavirus in the US.
- NASA employs about 17,000 people, and only „mission-essential personnel“ will be permitted on-site at space agency centers and facilities.
- The decision is known as a „Stage 3“ response and is part of a new NASA plan to respond to the coronavirus, which has infected people at some of its facilities.
- „This is the first time NASA has been in this situation,“ a spokesperson told Business Insider.
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NASA has sent all but an essential cluster of its 17,000-person workforce home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jim Bridenstine, the US space agency’s administrator, made the announcement Tuesday evening.
„Effective immediately, all employees and contractors will move to mandatory telework until further notice,“ Bridenstine said in a statement emailed by NASA’s public affairs office. „Mission-essential personnel will continue to be granted access onsite.“
Bridenstine noted that „a limited amount of employees have tested positive for COVID-19,“ as the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus is called. As of Tuesday evening, confirmed cases at NASA included its Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
„[I]t is imperative that we take this pre-emptive step to thwart further spreading of the virus among the workforce and our communities,“ Bridenstine added.
NASA’s agency-wide move follows a phase called „Stage 3“ from a recently unveiled „Response Framework“ document, which it created to rapidly mitigate the spread of the coronavirus among workers, if necessary.
Stage 1 applies to mostly functional access to centers and facilities, with an emphasis on social distancing, reduction in non-essential travel, and other activities to reduce the spread of the virus. The last phase, called Stage 4 – which only Ames is currently subject to, per a NASA coronavirus page – is a near-total closure of all facilities, „except to protect life and critical infrastructure.“
„This is the first time NASA has been in this situation,“ a spokesperson told Business Insider.
Coronavirus is confirmed to have infected about 200,000 people around the world and killed 8,000, according to Johns Hopkins University, and approximately half of all cases have not yet resolved. The overall mortality rate of the novel coronavirus is reported to be as high as 3.4% or, more recently, approximately 1.4%, according to STAT.
However, many cases are still going undetected due to testing shortfalls and the fact that some people with COVID-19 show no obvious symptoms. Deaths are also weighted heavily toward those people who are older or have what appear to be underlying risk factors such as heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, or cancer, according to a March 11 study published The Lancet.
NASA previously tightened access to its astronauts, including those slated to fly SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spaceship for the first time this spring – and return the US to flight since the retirement of the space shuttle program in July 2011. NASA is also working to develop the Space Launch System and Orion spaceship to send astronauts back to the moon mid-decade, and possibly on to Mars in the 2030s.
Business Insider asked the NASA spokesperson which missions and projects would be affected by the agency-wide escalation in its response plan, but they did not immediately provide a response.