(CNN) – When NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan return from their stay on the International Space Station on April 17, they will be coming back to a very different Earth.
When Meir and Morgan set off for their six- and nine-month stays, respectively, novel coronavirus wasn’t a threat. Now, it’s a pandemic.
NASA already has a protocol in place for returning astronauts that includes a post-landing medical check by flight doctors. The doctors and other NASA teams help the astronauts re-acclimate to Earth’s gravity, getting them up and walking soon after landing. In the weeks after, they’re monitored to make sure they’re healthy.
This time, the protocols will be more extensive.
“NASA will closely adhere to the CDC’s recommendations on infection control for the coronavirus as Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir return to Earth and begin their post-flight medical testing and re-adaptation period,” said Courtney Beasley, communications specialist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“This includes cleaning of surfaces, social distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene, encouraging NASA team members who are sick to stay home and limiting contact with the crew members.”
During the NASA Twins Study, researchers discovered the NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s immune system responded appropriately in space during his yearlong stay on the space station. He gave himself a flu shot on the statio,n and the vaccine and his immune system reacted the same way it would on Earth.
Astronauts haven’t experienced colds in space, but they do experience space motion sickness happens in the first 48 hours of being in zero gravity, which creates a loss of appetite, dizziness and vomiting.
A new crew of astronauts will also launch to the space station on April 9, joining Meir, Morgan and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. The crew includes NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
NASA has a long history of quarantining astronauts before they go to space to prevent illnesses, like cold and flu, from happening off planet. It was a concern even in the early days of the agency’s astronaut program.
“The health and welfare of the crew is always paramount,” Beasley said. “All of our crew must stay in quarantine for two weeks before they launch. This ensures that they aren’t sick or incubating an illness when they get to the space station and is called ‘health stabilization.’ ”
Ahead of quarantine, the astronauts are following The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations regarding coronavirus.
NASA and the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, are currently planning to maintain the standard quarantine period of two weeks for the crew, Beasley said.
“During quarantine, the astronauts live in their crew quarters — NASA has crew quarters for this purpose at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers, and Roscosmos has them in Baikonur,” she said. “They don’t have direct contact with anyone who has not been pre-cleared by NASA flight surgeons. The time is spent preparing for flight, studying and resting, as well as working out and making video calls to friends and family members.”
NASA is also eyeing a May launch date for the manned SpaceX Demo-2 flight test from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
This will be the first launch of American astronauts aboard an American rocket and spacecraft, rather than the Russian Soyuz they use now, since the final space shuttle mission in July 2011, according to the agency.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are expected to be on the flight test in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. It is the final flight test of the system before SpaceX is certified to carry out operational crew flights to and from the space station for NASA, the agency said.
The agency is monitoring CDC guidance with regards to mission planning, they said. The launch date could be postponed.
On Friday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi are moving to mandatory telework after a case was confirmed on the Stennis team and rising numbers of cases in the community around Michoud.
“NASA will temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware,” Bridenstine said.
“We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce.”
Those impacts are not yet clear. The Space Launch System and Orion capsule are the agency’s next generation of rocket and spacecraft capable of delivering astronauts to the moon.
Science on the space station
And as for science experiments and other items on SpaceX resupply missions to and from the space station, no launches have been rescheduled or canceled tyet, according to Patrick O’Neill, senior manager of marketing and communications for the International Space Station US National Laboratory.
Hundreds of science experiments are currently unfolding on the station, with more planned for the rest of the year.
Payloads typically go through safety certification processes to prevent any harmful microorganisms from finding their way to the space station, O’Neill said.
It’s the same when payloads are returned to Earth.
“This has proven to be an extremely effective process, and we have every confidence that it will continue to be so into the future,” he said.
Impacts to NASA
Many at NASA bureaus across the country are working from home, especially after an employee at the Ames Research Center in California tested positive for the virus.
Bridenstine acknowledged that coronavirus “will continue to test our agency’s ability to bend but not break under stress,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We have accomplished so many incredible feats as an agency,” Bridenstine said.
“We put Americans on the Moon, landed on Mars (seven times!), launched hundreds of crewed and robotic missions into space, created life-changing technologies, transformed aviation and sustained human presence on a laboratory that flies 250 miles above Earth for nearly 20 years — just to name a few things that once were thought to be impossible.
“I am convinced that we are uniquely equipped for this time of heightened need to collaborate and communicate,” he said. Teams across the agency are well-practiced in responding to mission contingencies and reacting to unforeseen challenges.”