Almost everyone with a hand in guiding the James Webb Space Telescope from Earth to its faraway orbit had a COVID-19 vaccine booster. No way was NASA going to let a microscopic coronavirus take down a massive $10 billion spacecraft. The agency toiled on the powerful observatory for over 25 years.
But some people on the team had traveled abroad to the launch site in French Guiana, a region in South America. While there for two months, they hadn’t rolled up their sleeves for a third shot against the highly infectious Omicron variant, said John Durning, NASA’s deputy project manager for Webb. The boosters are profoundly effective against severe illness and can often prevent infections, too. Yet upon returning, two key people tested positive for the virus, perhaps coming in contact with it on their flight back, Durning said.
NASA barred the infected personnel from the command center in Baltimore, depriving them of partaking in Webb’s next historic moves from the control room.
“That was a shock,” Durning told Mashable. “You could just see on their faces when they were told, ‘You gotta go,’ that was quite a crush.”
“You could just see on their faces when they were told, ‘You gotta go,’ that was quite a crush.”
The space community praised NASA and its partners for getting Webb, the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space, to its orbit around the sun about 1 million miles away. The spacecraft blasted off on Christmas and reached its final destination Jan. 24. From there, it’s expected to conduct breakthrough science and take never-before-seen snapshots of the universe’s first stars and galaxies, formed over 13.5 billion years ago.
But NASA faced more than an engineering challenge: It had to execute the mission amid the worst pandemic in modern history. If it weren’t for careful plans and the ability to work on laptops from home, the legendary though aging Hubble Space Telescope might not have had a successor this year.
The space observatory’s commissioning, the crucial early period when flight controllers deploy the instruments and run initial tests, could have been the perfect hotbed for an airborne infectious disease to thrive: Mission staff typically work in 12-hour shifts, like hospital nurses. For Webb, about 95 people were on duty at any given time during the first 30 days. Normally, personnel would sit almost shoulder-to-shoulder and huddle around screens to pore over data.
Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls
This time, they had quarter-inch Plexiglass plates between each other and masks. NASA pared down staffing in the flight control room to just the core people, with other personnel spread out in offices equipped with communication devices. Rapid COVID-19 tests were required anytime someone entered the facility, and frequent retesting occurred to ensure the staff remained COVID-free.
Usually, onlookers would fill a gallery to watch the auspicious occasion. No visitors were permitted inside for Webb.
Physical offices may seem old school nowadays, but the space agency had seldom allowed team members to perform their roles remotely during a spacecraft’s past deployments, Durning said. A work-from-home arrangement had neither been accepted nor proven to be sufficient on a larger scale.
The pandemic forced NASA to embrace the idea. Now core mission staff can access the Webb operations system, including all of the data streams from the spacecraft’s instruments, with an app on their phones and laptops.
“If we had launched in June of ’20, I’d say we would be much more uncomfortable and a lot more hesitant to do what we did this time,” Durning said.
“If we had launched in June of ’20, I’d say we would be much more uncomfortable and a lot more hesitant to do what we did this time.”
And many people did indeed need to telework. Two days before the Dec. 25, 2021 launch, the mission operations center, or MOC (pronounced “mock”), went into full-time prep at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Baltimore office that runs the Webb telescope. Between then and Jan. 10, about a dozen team members tested positive for COVID-19, Durning said. Those infections forced roughly 10 percent of the team to test negative or isolate due to their potential exposure, he said.
The outbreak could have impacted even more people if not for the team’s use of proximity trackers in the facility to log their close contacts, Durning said. Two months before the telescope left Earth, the Webb team began wearing sensors similar to the electronic tokens people use to keep tabs on their car keys. The trackers are the same devices some sports leagues have adopted to trace the virus among athletes.
Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls
The surveillance system alerted scientists and engineers when they were less than six feet apart and logged when they were close to one another for 15 minutes or more. The distance and duration are guidelines for assessing potential COVID-19 exposure from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At first, the sensors, worn on lanyards, were a nuisance. A blue light meant they were all-clear and safely distanced; red flashing and beeping was a warning for being too close for too long.
The alarms were incessant, Durning recalled. One time his sensor went off in the restroom. The device was apparently detecting someone outside in the hallway.
“You know, there’s nothing I can do in the bathroom,” he said. “I’m not moving.”
The team disabled the sounds but continued to use the lights and proximity logs.
The Omicron variant, a more-contagious mutation of the virus, inevitably arrived on their doorstep. Around Thanksgiving, about 3 percent of all standard nasal swab tests in Baltimore came back positive for the coronavirus, according to the Maryland Department of Health. One month later, the rate hit 16 percent.
On the day NASA expected to finish unfurling the sunshield, a tennis-court-sized shade needed to protect the telescope from the sun, astronomer Michelle Thaller, one of the agency’s top science communicators, provided commentary live from her house. Because of Omicron and NASA’s attempt to limit crowd size, she couldn’t use the broadcasting set at the MOC for the momentous occasion.
“We weren’t quite anticipating a surge like we just got right on top of our first week of commissioning, but we have protocols in place to keep everybody safe,” Keith Parrish, NASA’s commissioning manager for the observatory, said during the broadcast.
Whenever someone tested positive, HR sent out emails to the people who were potentially exposed, based on their proximity data. At first, the emails were panic-inducing, especially for anyone with a compromised immune system. After a while, though, the notifications became business as usual.
“You were steeled to the fact that when a positive [case] came up, like, ‘Wow, OK, I was just next to that person, you know, 10 hours ago.’ And then you take your test, and it turns out that you’re negative, you’re like, ‘Phew, that’s a dodge,'” he said. “I’ve been dodging the bullets everywhere.”
Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls
Durning dodged the coronavirus from sources outside of work, too. During the crucial first month for Webb, someone in his household contracted COVID-19. Because Durning stayed in a hotel near the facility for the deployments, he wasn’t exposed to his loved one’s infection.
Some of the scientists and engineers who tested positive for COVID-19 did get symptoms, though none was sick enough to need hospitalization. One was even able to participate in key commands for the spacecraft. From his hotel room, the leader OK’d his colleagues’ pushing a button for the critical sunshield deployment.
Mission managers say a bitter impact of the pandemic was the inability to celebrate Webb’s monumental accomplishments together. A couple of people popped champagne, but the entire team hasn’t been able to gather for a party or a round of beers at a bar.
Though technology may allow people to fly a spacecraft from home, it still doesn’t replace collaborating in person, Durning said. There’s no substitute for face-to-face conversations to share ideas and work out problems.
“In the future metaverse, whenever that happens, you’re going to have your avatar walk down the hallway and see your colleague’s avatar and have that conversation,” he said. “But until that happens, we can, at a minimum, get the job done.”