NASA and SpaceX Set to Make History With Landmark Spaceflight During Pandemic

Alan Boyle, GeekWire

GeekWire contributing editor Alan Boyle is an award-winning science writer and veteran space reporter. Formerly of NBCNews.com, he is the author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference." Follow him via CosmicLog.com, on Twitter @b0yle, and on Facebook and MeWe.

NASA and SpaceX Set to Make History With Landmark Spaceflight During Pandemic

Everything is in readiness for the first mission to send humans into orbit from U.S. soil since NASA retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011 – from the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that will take two astronauts to the International Space Station, to the parachutes that will bring them back down gently to an Atlantic Ocean splashdown, to the masks that NASA's ground team will wear in Mission Control.


The fact that the launch is coming in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has added a weird and somewhat wistful twist to the history-making event.

"That certainly is disappointing," NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, who'll be spacecraft commander for the Crew Dragon demonstration mission, told reporters today during a mission preview. "An aspect of this pandemic is the fact that we won't have the luxury of our family and friends being there at Kennedy to watch the launch. But it's obviously the right thing to do."

NASA is asking people not to show up in person to watch the liftoff, currently scheduled for 4:32 p.m. ET (1:32 p.m. PT) May 27 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"The challenge that we're up against right now is, we want to keep everybody safe," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. "That's the No. 1 highest priority of NASA, keeping people safe, and so we're asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center. And I will tell you, that makes me sad to even say it. Boy, I wish we could make this into something really spectacular."

Highlighting Our Upcoming Launch of Astronauts from Florida on This Week @NASA – May 1, 2020youtu.be

Instead, NASA is asking the public to tune into streaming coverage of the journey to the space station, which will run continuously from before launch to the docking 19 hours after liftoff.This month's milestone mission is aimed at testing all the systems on the SpaceX Crew Dragon during crewed flight for the first time. It's known as Demo-2, because the flight follows up on Demo-1, an initial uncrewed demonstration mission that was flown successfully in March 2019.

Hurley and his Dragon crewmate, Bob Behnken, will work alongside the other residents of the space station for at least a month – and perhaps for as long as four months, depending on how smoothly the mission goes and how quickly a follow-up Crew Dragon mission comes together.

The ultimate limiting factor has to do with how long the Dragon's power-generating solar arrays last before they degrade in the harsh conditions of space. Engineers figure 119 days is the maximum.

If the flight is a success, Crew Dragon spacecraft will be flying regular missions to and from the space station for years to come, marking the end of an era when NASA had to rely exclusively on the Russians to put its astronauts in orbit, at a cost that has ranged beyond $80 million a seat.

Demo-2 is as much of a milestone for SpaceX as it is for NASA. It'll be the first crewed flight for the 18-year-old space company founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

"We were founded in 2002 to fly people to low Earth orbit, the moon and Mars, and NASA has certainly made that possible," said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer.

After the decades-old space shuttles were retired, NASA selected SpaceX and Boeingto build relatively low-cost space taxis to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. SpaceX went with an upgraded version of its Dragon capsule, which has been making orbital cargo runs for NASA since 2012. Boeing developed a brand-new spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, which is being fine-tuned in the wake of last year's flawed test flight.

Just today, SpaceX checked off one of the last critical items on its preflight checklist: the 27th and final test of the Crew Dragon's Mark 3 parachute system.During the next few weeks, NASA and SpaceX will continue scrutinizing the Crew Dragon and its Falcon 9 rocket. Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, said all of the technical issues are being resolved – including checking to make sure the Falcon 9's engines won't fall prey to the kind of failure that cropped up during a launch last month.

Concerns about COVID-19 are adding a new dimension to the safety measures traditionally required for spaceflight.

"We've been going through a number of precautions with Bob and Doug as the coronavirus pandemic has been in place for a few months," said Steve Stich, the Commercial Crew Program's deputy manager. "We have minimized contact with them for weeks now. … They only come to certain training events where they really need to be present."

Stich said anyone who comes into close proximity to Behnken and Hurley during training has to go through medical checks, and wear a mask and gloves. Some mission simulations that are typically conducted in person are being done over high-speed data connections instead.

"I would really say that our quarantine period, instead of being two weeks, has really stretched into closer to 10 weeks," Behnken told GeekWire during a post-briefing telephone interview.

"We're taking temperatures, we're wearing masks in public areas, we are social distancing as well," SpaceX's Shotwell said. "We've got at least half our engineering staff working from home. Actually, more than that. And for those that can't work from home, we've got protective gear for them to be able to get their jobs done."

NASA's Stich said the layout of Mission Control has been changed to ensure at least 6 feet of distance between ground controllers. "We go in and clean those rooms ahead of time with sanitizer. … And then, in between shifts, we make sure we clean things for the next group of flight controllers and operators," Stich said.

Behnken said it's been challenging to manage the complications associated with the pandemic while preparing for the space mission.

"Of course, people have had to change their lifestyles," he said. "We're conducting schooling from home for my son as we continue out through the school year. So, really trying to avoid the pandemic becoming a distraction – at the same time that we take all the appropriate precautions that science and prudence would dictate – has just been something we've had to incorporate."

This story first appeared in GeekWire.

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.

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