ORLANDO, March 20 (UPI) -- NASA has suspended work on the Space Launch System moon rocket because of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a potential delay in the agency's Artemis program for a moon landing in 2024.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the suspension Thursday evening, as part of a near-total shutdown of the agency's Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. That's where the rocket's core stage is being prepared for a test firing.
Bridenstine said a worker at Stennis had tested positive for COVID-19.
"We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but ... we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce," Bridenstine said in the announcement.
NASA and its contractors, chiefly Boeing and Lockheed Martin, build the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule at Michoud Assembly Facility, 40 miles southwest of Stennis in New Orleans. That facility also was shut, according to Bridenstine's announcement.
The action means that the facilities are closed except for very limited staff needed to secure property. Both Stennis and Michoud had seen a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the surrounding community and employees who were isolated because of exposure to the disease, Bridenstine said.
"There is no precedent for this, really, in NASA history," said John Logsdon, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, a group of citizens appointed by the NASA administrator to provide guidance on major program and policy issues.
"The only precedent that would be remotely comparable is the Apollo 1 fire in terms of a big interruption to the development of a program," Logsdon said.
The Apollo 1 tragedy in 1967 claimed the lives of three astronauts. That was something NASA could investigate and fix, while the pandemic is a much bigger global problem, Logsdon said.
Logsdon, who founded the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., also was on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which probed the cause of the Space Shuttle Columbia's in-flight destruction in 2003. He said the Columbia and Challenger disasters were serious tragedies, but only interrupted an ongoing NASA program.
"The 2024 deadline to return to the moon was designed to light a fire under what the White House saw as a slow-moving agency, and it was working until this," Logsdon said.
Boeing released a statement supporting the decision.
"We will remain engaged with NASA, health officials, our employees, suppliers and other stakeholders, and make all the progress we can until onsite work can resume," the company said.
In January, NASA and Boeing sent 300 people to Stennis to prepare the 212-foot-long, 188,000-pound core stage for test firing at the facility's B-2 test stand.
On March 3, Boeing announced the rocket's initial checkouts went smoothly, but no date had been confirmed for the final test.
The full test-firing would entail igniting the four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines for a full eight minutes, which is how long they would burn in an actual launch. The rocket would be locked down while producing 8.8 million pounds of thrust.
Vice President Mike Pence charged NASA with returning to the moon by 2024 during a speech in March 2019. The rocket at Stennis had been slated for an uncrewed launch at the end of 2020 to travel around the moon.