Coronavirus concerns force closure of NASA center, some space industry events canceled

File photo from the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington. Credit: Satellite 2019

An annual meeting of planetary scientists near Houston has been canceled due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, and NASA has instructed its 1,200 employees at a field center in California to work from home until further notice after a worker there tested positive for the illness. But a major satellite industry conference in Washington is going ahead as planned this week.

“NASA’s Ames Research Center will temporarily go to MANDATORY telework status effective immediately and until further notice,” the center’s emergency management office wrote in an update Sunday night. “More guidance will follow for those who do not have equipment to work from home or who work in labs or other facilities requiring similar technical equipment that are fixed assets.

“On Sunday, March 8, we received confirmation that an Ames employee tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19),” officials at Ames wrote. “We believe the exposure at the center has been limited, but — out of an abundance of caution, and in consultation with NASA Headquarters and the NASA Chief Heath and Medical Officer in accordance to agency response plans — Ames Research Center will temporarily go to a mandatory telework status until further notice.”

NASA asked its 17,000 employees to voluntarily work from home Friday to rehearse procedures that the agency could have to use if the virus spreads further.

“As always, the protection and care of our NASA team is the top priority,” NASA said in a statement last week. “As the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation continues to evolve, NASA is taking various actions to maintain preparedness. To that end, Friday, March 6, will be an agencywide telework day.

“NASA centers and headquarters regularly perform telework drills to test our capabilities, resources, and preparedness for large-scale teleworking,” the agency said in a statement.

NASA circulated a survey to the agency’s employees Friday to gauge their experience with the telework drill.

Meanwhile, major space industry and scientific conferences are being impacted by concerns about the coronavirus.

Officials organizing the 51st annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which was to begin March 16 in The Woodlands, Texas, announced March 4 that the event has been canceled.

“We regret to inform you that LPSC 51 will be cancelled due to concerns about COVID-19,” organizers wrote in an email to conferences attendees. “This difficult decision has been made after a careful assessment of the risks as determined by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organization); consultation with NASA PSD (Planetary Science Division) leadership; and consideration of community feedback. We are fully committed to ensuring that our conference attendees remain safe and well.”

The LPSC is widely attended by planetary scientists from around the world, and often hosts announcements of major scientific results. In 2018, the conference had nearly 1,800 attendees from 45 U.S. states and 33 countries.

The annual spring meetings of the International Astronautical Federation in Paris, which were set to begin March 24, have also been canceled.

“The growing concerns over the spreading of the COVID-19 virus and the fact that many of our colleagues have annulled their trips to Paris due to travel restrictions led us to believe that it is our responsibility to think of the health and safety of our community and therefore cancel the physical meetings,” the IAF said.

“However, we are committed to ensure that most of the meetings and discussions that would normally take place in Paris can still take place remotely, via video and phone connections, in order not to disrupt the activities of the federation and its community.”

The IAF, which says it promotes cooperation and knowledge-sharing among space-faring nations, organizes the annual International Astronautical Congress.

A meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee has been changed to a “virtual only” meeting due to coronavirus concerns. The meeting was planned to occur in person at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

But a major satellite industry conference in Washington is going ahead as planned this week.

The Satellite 2020 conference, organized by Access Intelligence, begins Monday. The annual spring conference is widely-attended, and is one of the largest space industry meetings worldwide.

Organizers of the conference said the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where the conference is held, is safe to be in. The organizers said they are “concerned with the safety of all participants,” and that the conference “will continue as long as (government health officials) confirm with us that it is safe to hold the event.”

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEI, is scheduled to speak Monday afternoon at the Satellite 2020 conference.

On Friday, he tweeted: “The coronavirus panic is dumb.”

But some companies have canceled or curtailed their participation in the Satellite 2020 conference. SES and OneWeb, two major commercial satellite operators, said they would not send employees to the conference.

“In view of the deepening concerns around COVID-19 virus, SES has made the difficult decision to not send its employees to Satellite 2020 and its related events,” SES said March 4.

The company said Steve Collar, its CEO, would still attend the conference to honor his public commitments.

“Following escalation of coronavirus, we have made the difficult decision to withdraw from Satellite 2020,” OneWeb said. “We’ll miss our friends at the show. Our customers and partners remain of the utmost importance to us, and we are eager to rearrange meetings and conversations.”

According to the organizers of Satellite 2020, 12 percent of the conference’s exhibitors and 10 percent of attendees have communicated they will not join the conference on site in Washington. Others are changing their pre-planned meetings, but still attending, the organizers said.

More than 15,000 people from 107 countries attended the Satellite 2019 conference last year.

“While COVID-19 has caused some companies to impose travel restrictions, we are expecting the majority of our exhibitors and attendees to be joining us on site,” the Satellite 2020 organizers said. “We have been monitoring hotel reservations for cancellations and contacting attendees pre-show via telephone to reconfirm attendance.”

The 36th Space Symposium is still planned to go ahead as scheduled March 30 through April 2 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, according to the Space Foundation, which organizes the annual conference. But officials said they are monitoring the latest on the spread of the coronavirus.

“As health care practitioners and the public health community work together to address the coronavirus/COVID-19 situation, there are still a number of unknowns,” the Space Foundation said. “What we do know is that personal hygiene is of critical importance. We strongly encourage that people follow the science, implement the recommendations of public health agencies, and continue to participate in the activities that make our world connected.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.