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NASA and SpaceX say they are ‘go’ to proceed with historic crewed flight on May 27th

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After two days of intense reviews, NASA is giving its commercial partner SpaceX the thumbs-up to launch its first astronauts to space next week. There’s still more work to be done by both the agency and SpaceX, including another review on Monday, but officials decided there were no major issues standing in the way of the launch.

“It was a good review, great discussion,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference. “I think everybody in the room was very clear that now’s the time to speak up if there are any challenges.” Bridenstine noted that many people did speak up, and they had a lot of discussions about various aspects of the mission. “At the end we got to a ‘go,’” he said. “So we are now preparing for a launch in five short days.”

On May 27th, SpaceX is slated to launch its first crew of two — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — to the International Space Station for NASA. The flight is the final test for SpaceX as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which enlisted private companies to create vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s vehicle for the program is the Crew Dragon, and after six years of development and testing, the company is less than a week away from finally putting people inside the vehicle.

During the review, officials talked over a lot of technical issues that could become a problem during flight, such as the Crew Dragon’s parachutes, which have required enormous amounts of testing over the last few years. They also discussed an unexpected technical issue that arose last year when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a ground test, as well as concerns about the company’s ability to suppress any unexpected fires that might break out on Dragon. Ultimately, everyone concluded that the risks were manageable. “There are no significant open issues, I am happy to report,” Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator, said during the press conference. “It was a very, at the end, was a very, very clean review.”

Also this afternoon, SpaceX tested the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch Behnken and Hurley. At 4:33PM ET, the company ignited the engines on the rocket while holding it down on its launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, verifying that all the rocket’s systems were in working order.

While NASA says SpaceX is “go” for launch, there’s still quite a bit of work to do before the company’s rocket takes flight. On Saturday, Behnken and Hurley will do what’s called a “dry dress rehearsal,” where they’ll suit up in SpaceX’s custom spacesuits and go through all of the steps leading up to flight, without actually launching. Then on Monday, SpaceX and NASA officials will do yet another review about whether to proceed with the launch. That review will incorporate data from today’s ignition test, as well as data from the dress rehearsal.

“That’s a ton of data,” Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, said during the press conference. “It’s really, really important that all of our engineers, they’re all on deck and ready to go right now. And for the next few days through the weekend, they will be analyzing and looking at all the data and all the observations that are made.”

So things are still on track, but it’s not “all systems go” just yet.

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How SpaceX and NASA are launching astronauts into space during a pandemic

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Ahead of this week’s launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, NASA is working to keep the enduring threat of COVID-19 at bay during the historic launch. To protect its astronauts, ground crew, and potential visitors, NASA has adjusted their approach to this highly anticipated event. If successful, the launch will not only break the US’s nine-year drought of crewed launches to the ISS, but it will also make history as the first time a private spacecraft has carried people into orbit.

“We’re taking extra precautions,” said Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a press call this month. On the ground, the agency is introducing temperature checks and physical distancing at Mission Control.

A successful launch requires dozens of people who usually work in close quarters in closed rooms at Mission Control. For this launch, NASA is spreading them out between different rooms. “We need to make sure we are separating people as much as possible,” he said. They’ll disinfect rooms regularly and put up Plexiglas between different work stations. “We’re looking at all the things where we can practice the guidelines for social distancing, and at the same time, launch this very important mission to the International Space Station,” he said.

Those measures are important to protect both this launch and the next set of NASA missions. “We have other missions that need to go forward. We don’t want to risk the health of the people who work at Kennedy,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on a press call in May. The Mars Perseverance Rover launches in July.

Extreme caution is already being taken with the Crew Dragon’s astronauts. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been in quarantine since May 13th. That’s a normal part of the preparations for a mission — crews heading to space always quarantine for a period of time before a launch to minimize the chance that they’re taking an infectious disease of any kind into space. As an extra step, both Behnken and Hurley will be tested for the novel coronavirus twice before they leave for the ISS. Anyone interacting with the astronauts before the launch will wear masks and gloves and have their temperature taken.

“We don’t anticipate that between now and the day of launch that there’s really going to be an opportunity for them to contract any virus or harmful bacteria,” Bridenstine said.

In addition to protecting the astronauts and ground crew, NASA is also limiting the number of visitors who can come to the space center to watch the launch, Bridenstine said. The VIP list for this particular event is very short. They’re not closing dignitaries out entirely — some members of Congress and of the National Space Council will be in attendance. They won’t be able to bring along staffers, though. “We’re really trying to whittle it down to what is important,” he said.

Sadly, the cheering crowds that were a feature of past missions didn’t make the cut. In 2011, the last time astronauts launched into space from US soil, nearly 1 million people packed close together on bridges and beaches in Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch. NASA hopes that won’t happen this time. “We’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center,” Bridenstine said. “We think it’s in the best interest of the agency and in the best interest of the nation if people join us by watching from home.”

“It is a shame — NASA and SpaceX have worked so hard to get to the day, and the American public has come along this long journey with us,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, on a press call this month. “But it’s the right thing to do.”

NASA can only control what people do on its own property, though. It’s up to the state of Florida to regulate roads and beaches — and the county sheriff is encouraging people to come watch the launch, despite the risks of large gatherings.

“We are not going to keep the great Americans that want to come watch that from coming here,” said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey in a press conference. “If NASA is telling people to not come here and watch the launch, that’s on them. I’m telling people what I believe as an American. And so NASA has got their guidelines, and I got mine.”

Ahead of the launch, businesses and restaurants are opening across the state of Florida, where nearly 50,000 cases of COVID-19 have been identified. Despite the relaxation of stay-at-home orders in Florida and other nearby states, public health experts still recommend people avoid large groups and crowded spaces, where the disease spreads easily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that traveling by air, car, or bus increases someone’s chances of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

Even with the change in audience and spectacle, the nuts and bolts of the launch will continue as planned. Stich says teams at NASA have run simulations that include all of the extra COVID-19 precautions, and they’ve gone smoothly. “We don’t really see any impact how we’re gonna operate on launch day,” he says.

Loren Grush contributed to this report.

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Small satellite launcher Virgin Orbit plans to fly its rocket for the first time this weekend

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Small satellite launcher Virgin Orbit — the sibling company to Richard Branson’s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic — plans to conduct the first test launch of its rocket today. The company has been developing and testing its vehicles for the last six years, but now it’s ready to finally send a rocket to orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s primary rocket is called LauncherOne, capable of launching small to medium payloads, roughly the size of washing machines, to space. And the rocket takes a unique path to get there. Rather than launching upright from the ground — as the majority of rockets do these days — LauncherOne actually takes off from underneath the wing of a Boeing 747 airplane. Nicknamed Cosmic Girl, the 747 is designed to carry LauncherOne up to 35,000 feet. There, the plane pulls up, angling the rocket toward the sky, and then LauncherOne drops away. Its main engine ignites, propelling LauncherOne the rest of the way to orbit.

“We’re a very unique system in that we are air launched,” Dan Hart, the CEO of Virgin Orbit, said during a press conference. “And what that gives us is incredible flexibility. In fact, we have mobility; we can fly to space from any place that can host a 747, which is almost any place, and we can go to any orbit.”

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Virgin Orbit has yet to actually put LauncherOne in to orbit, though the company has done a fair amount of testing on all of the hardware to make it happen. Engineers at Virgin Orbit have conducted numerous ignition tests with LauncherOne’s engine, called NewtonThree, at the company’s test facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Virgin Orbit’s main pilot, Kelly Latimer, has been routinely flying Cosmic Girl, going through the maneuvers she’ll need to do during an actual launch. And the team has done various tests with LauncherOne in the air, rehearsing everything but the part where the rocket’s engines ignite. The company has carried the rocket underneath the wing of Cosmic Girl a few times, and the team even dropped a dummy LauncherOne from the plane, to see if the rocket fell as they expected.

Getting to this launch has taken slightly more time than Virgin Orbit had anticipated. Originally, the company had hoped to fly LauncherOne as early as last summer, but the team wound up doing more work to develop the rocket. “We did add some tests along the way as we looked at the overall verification program,” Hart said. “And so we adjusted accordingly. The internal focus of the team was really to move through a methodical development process.” Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to pause operations briefly this year and rework how people operate in the Virgin Orbit factories in Long Beach.

But now, it’s finally time to fly. LauncherOne is loaded up with a weighted dummy payload that the company has treated like an actual customer’s satellite. That means the team has been handling it with care and even cleaning it, as if it were the real thing. “In itself, it is not a terribly exciting thing,” Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, said during the press conference. “You know, it is essentially a nice-looking inert mass that allowed us to practice all those things we really wanted to practice.”

To get this mass into orbit, the plan is for Latimer to take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port with LauncherOne. She’ll then fly Cosmic Girl out over the Pacific and position the plane over the rocket’s drop point. Latimer will release the rocket and a few seconds later, the engines should ignite and start LauncherOne’s trip to space. Virgin Orbit has a four-hour launch window for this mission that begins at 1PM ET on Monday. Originally, the company had hoped to launch Sunday, but had to postpone due to the discovery of a sensor acting funny. The company will only launch if all the weather criteria and other restrictions are met, but so far, Hart says weather is looking good.

Virgin Orbit is prepared to learn from this flight and is realistic about the possibility of something going wrong. “History is not terribly kind necessarily to maiden flights,” Pomerantz said, noting that about half of inaugural launches of new rockets fail. The team is also prepared to do another test launch if necessary after this one.

But if all goes well, the goal is for the company to move rapidly to commercial service. Its first customer flight is for NASA, launching up to 10 small satellites developed mostly by universities on a mission called ELaNa XX. That should be one of a handful that Virgin Orbit does this year. “We expect to get to one or two more flights this year, as we understand and mature the system,” Hart said. That cadence may increase next year.

Once commercial operations get into full swing, Virgin Orbit will become one of just a handful of US companies with an operational rocket dedicated to launching small payloads into orbit. However, the company has a lot of competition coming up quick, with numerous startups developing similar types of launch vehicles to capitalize on the small satellite revolution. And other major players, like SpaceX, are trying to get in on the market too, by offering to pack multiple small satellites on their larger rockets to get numerous tiny vehicles into space at once.

Virgin Orbit is optimistic, though, claiming to have customer contracts from commercial companies, NASA, the Department of Defense, and even international partners, that add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. The company also set its pre-launch price for rides on LauncherOne at $12 million, but the company says that will evolve over time. “Our pricing obviously will follow the market as we get into full operations,” Hart said. “And we’ll adjust accordingly.”

Above all, Hart thinks that launching from a plane instead of a fixed launchpad will make the company more attractive to prospective customers. “We are really completely unique in the field in that we have this flexibility and that we’re not launching out of a congested range,” said Hart.

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New study finds chloroquine doesn’t help COVID-19 patients — and it might even hurt

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A large-scale study suggests chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine don’t help treat COVID-19, and it may even be harmful. Today, peer-reviewed journal The Lancet published a paper analyzing data from thousands of patients who took the drugs. Their outcomes were no better than those of people who didn’t — in fact, they were more likely to die or develop an irregular heartbeat.

The analysis covers a registry of roughly 15,000 patients across multiple continents, all of whom were given either hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, or one of those drugs paired with a class of antibiotics called macrolides. It compares the group with roughly 81,000 patients who were not given the drugs. The results weren’t encouraging. People treated with either drug had a higher mortality rate, as well as an increased risk of developing ventricular arrhythmia.

Both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were linked to worse outcomes even after controlling for other risk factors like age, preexisting health conditions, and being a current smoker. Researchers completely excluded patients who were treated later than 48 hours after diagnosis, as well as anyone taking remdesivir, a different experimental treatment.

This doesn’t conclusively prove the drugs are dangerous. The authors — including researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University Hospital of Zurich, the University of Utah, and Surgisphere Corporation — warn there might be other variables that weren’t accounted for. But there was “no evidence” that the medications were helpful. And the researchers stress an urgent need for controlled clinical trials (where people are randomly assigned to take the drug or not), not just studies like this one that passively observe patients, to provide more information.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine initially looked like promising treatments for COVID-19. The evidence consisted of preliminary studies involving a few dozen patients, though, and one has since been withdrawn for revision. Later research has cast doubt on their results. A New England Journal of Medicine article from earlier this month compared roughly 800 patients who took hydroxychloroquine to around 560 who didn’t, finding “no significant association” between the drug’s use and survival rates.

Despite this, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have become touchstones in a culture war. They’ve been championed with minimal evidence by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Fox News, and President Donald Trump, who announced earlier this week that he’s been taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent COVID-19. (Conversely, Trump has refused to wear masks in public, despite tentative evidence that they slow COVID-19’s spread.) Some doctors have complained that the drugs’ politicization made it more difficult to conduct research, and the hype has caused shortages among people who take them for other conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

The Lancet study doesn’t examine whether the drugs might prevent COVID-19, and it specifically looks at health risks in people who are already sick. These medications are currently approved for use treating autoimmune diseases and preventing malaria, although they have known side effects including arrhythmia. Clinical trials to see if they can prevent COVID-19 are still underway.

This research probably won’t settle the political debate over hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. Trump’s announcement that he’s taking one of the drugs has sparked renewed interest among supporters, including a defensive tweet from Trump’s campaign manager promoting a misleading statistical analysis. The president initially promoted the drugs as a miracle cure — and if such a cure exists, it’s far easier to order the end of shelter-in-place policies and other containment measures for the novel coronavirus.

As it stands, there’s no proven treatment for COVID-19, and we’re months or years away from a novel coronavirus vaccine, although several promising options are being researched. But discovering that a specific treatment doesn’t work is also valuable, especially if that treatment turns out to be worse than taking nothing at all. While today’s study doesn’t take chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine off the table, it provides additional, clear evidence about their usefulness and their risks.

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