SpaceX research, with Elon Musk as author, details Covid protections for first astronaut launch

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NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley rehearses donning his SpaceX spacesuit in the astronaut crew quarters inside the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout building at the Kennedy Space Center prior to the SpaceX Demo-2 mission of NASA to the International Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. May 23, 2020.

Kim Shiflett | Nasa | Reuters

SpaceX first launched people into space in May 2020, months after the spread of the Covid pandemic began in the United States, and Elon Musk’s company added quarantine precautions to protect NASA astronauts in the weeks leading up to launch, according to research recently published in an academic journal.

NASA has had its flight crew health stabilization program in place for decades, which was initially created during the Gemini missions of the 1960s and matured during the Apollo missions.

SpaceX’s Demo-2 launch, carrying astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, was the first time a private company has adapted NASA’s program for a mission. Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine explained to TBEN in April 2020 some of the measures the agency and the company were taking to protect astronauts. SpaceX launched the pair to the International Space Station on May 30, 2020 and returned them safely on August 2, 2020.

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“The commercial implementation of the NASA Health Stabilization Program by SpaceX with the required adjustments during the COVID-19 pandemic has been successful, with protocols allowing the identification and removal of potentially infectious people from the program. “, says the report.

The report was published in the July edition of the journal Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance. The report’s authors included engineers from SpaceX – including Musk himself – as well as representatives from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and medical schools at Dartmouth, Stanford, the University of Arizona and Moreover.

NASA’s existing program includes a flight crew quarantine starting 14 days before launch, to limit interactions with others to those known as “primary contacts”. The report states that 91 SpaceX employees were made as key contacts in the company’s adaptation of NASA’s health stabilization program,

Forty-five days before launch, SpaceX began distributing medical screening questionnaires to key potential contacts. Twenty-eight days before launch, SpaceX began a daily morning survey, with 25 questions to check for symptoms of Covid. SpaceX’s flight surgeon received the results of the investigation for review every night and followed up with anyone who reported new symptoms. The report says the survey had an average daily response rate of 93.4%.

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The report noted that 2,720 surveys were completed before launch, with 198, or 7.3%, returning with potential symptoms of Covid – the most common being joint pain, coughing, sneezing, abdominal pain or headaches. During the investigation period, 22 employees were contacted by the SpaceX flight surgeon, and five of those employees were reviewed.

“All exams were unremarkable and additional COVID-19 RT-PCR tests were performed on two of the five people, who tested negative and returned to work,” the report said, referring to a reaction test in reverse transcription polymerase chain.

Two others were withdrawn from the program “for a potential infectious disease”, the report notes, but “both suffered from chronic diseases difficult to distinguish from an infectious disease”.

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SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles, California.

AaronP / Bauer-Griffin | GC Images | Getty Images

SpaceX has created a “closed-loop system” for interactions with the NASA crew, including flight only by an agency or private plane, sterilized vehicles, a private entrance to the SpaceX training center, and face masks and required temperature controls. Any SpaceX staff who came into “close contact” with the astronauts also performed PCR tests 48 hours previously.

The report concluded that SpaceX’s precautions had been successful, but noted that they could be improved through better “monitoring of areas accessible to non-personnel. [health stabilization program] protocol. NASA’s Launch Pad 39A “was viewed by some staff who were not participating” in the program, creating “a potential transmission point.”

“In addition, more research is needed to adapt [Health Stabilization Program] protocols for pandemic environments when disease prevalence in the community is high, ”the report notes.

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