As coronavirus pandemic continues, NASA will 'assess the potential impact on our missions'

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the globe, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Fox News the space agency will "continue to assess the potential impact on our missions as the situation unfolds."

In an email to Fox News, Bridenstine said the agency's main priority is the safety of its workers -- while noting the benefits of space exploration to the U.S. economy.

"NASA’s number one priority right now is taking the steps needed to protect and care for the NASA team, which is critical to the success of our missions," Bridenstine said. "We will continue to assess the potential impact on our missions as the situation unfolds."

File photo: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testifies before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on April 2, 2019, during a hearing to review NASA's fiscal year 2020 budget request. (Getty Images)

File photo: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testifies before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on April 2, 2019, during a hearing to review NASA's fiscal year 2020 budget request. (Getty Images)

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Bridenstine continued: "Space exploration has been an economic driver for the U.S. economy, creating tens of thousands of jobs, reducing our trade deficit, and inspiring countless Americans to pursue careers in STEM fields. The Artemis program as part of America’s Moon to Mars exploration approach will continue that long tradition, growing our economy and improving life on Earth for generations to come."

On March 19, Bridenstine announced the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center in New Orleans and Mississippi, respectively, would move to Stage 4, closing all facilities and forcing mandatory telework, putting the 2024 timeframe of a return to the moon in jeopardy.

"The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume," the former Oklahoma congressman turned NASA Administrator said in the March 19 statement. "Once this is complete, personnel allowed onsite will be limited to those needed to protect life and critical infrastructure."

NASA had recently moved the entire agency to Stage 3, which still allowed for "mission essential personnel" to appear at the centers. The decision to change Stennis's status was made "due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the community around the center, the number of self-isolation cases within our workforce there, and one confirmed case among our Stennis team," Bridenstine said last week.

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Separately, NASA issued a statement on its website on March 20 that its Perseverance rover is a "high priority" for the agency, noting the mission will continue as is.

"Much of the work is being done by employees and contractors who work remotely across the agency. Assessments by agency leadership are underway for anyone required to work in areas under restriction, such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, especially after the recent announcement by California’s governor," NASA wrote in the statement issued late Friday.

However, the fate of the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch in March 2021, is up in the air. The government agency also said it would suspend "integration and testing operations" to ensure "the safety of the workforce." The James Webb Telescope is the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in operation for more than 29 years.

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On March 14, the European Space Agency, in conjunction with Russian space agency Roscosmos, announced that its next mission to Mars will be delayed until 2022 due in part to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, the White House announced that the seventh meeting of the National Space Council, which is led by Vice President Mike Pence, has been postponed. The meeting was initially scheduled to take place at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. The meeting will be convened at a later date, said Dr. Scott Pace, deputy assistant to the President and executive secretary of the National Space Council, in a statement emailed to Fox News.

As of Monday morning, there have been more than 349,000 reported cases of COVID-19, including at least 35,000 in the U.S.

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