A NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts were launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday, even as much of the rest of the world is locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic, CNN reports. Both space agencies took the same precautions they've been taking for decades to keep the men from bringing the virus with them to the spacecraft.
American Chris Cassidy joined his two Russian colleagues, Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, on a journey from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the ISS, lifting off at 4:05 a.m. Eastern Time.
It may seem like now is not the time to be sending astronauts into space, inasmuch as almost all travel on the ground is severely limited due to the coronavirus pandemic. What's more, it may seem like there's a possibility, however remote, that one of the men could bring the virus with them to the orbiting spacecraft — the absolute worst place to be should a colleague get sick with it.
However, both the Russian and the American space agencies have offered assurances that they've taken space travel precautions that have been in place for decades. All of the astronauts were in tight quarantine for weeks before the launch, confined to their quarters and allowed limited contact with others.
"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," said Courtney Beasley, communications specialist at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
"They don't have direct contact with anyone who has not been pre-cleared by NASA flight surgeons," she added.
Meanwhile, the hundreds of men and women whose work on the ground makes a flight into space possible all wore masks and protective equipment, maintaining a distance of six feet apart while working to get the men into space.
About six hours after the launch, the three passengers docked with their destination and then joined cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan onboard the ISS. In just over a week, on April 17, Skripochka and Meir will return to Earth after having spent six months on the station.
The world that they're returning to will be vastly different than the one they left behind back in 2019. At the time, the coronavirus was barely a blip on anyone's radar. Now, it's a global pandemic.
Fortunately, the same systems that protect space travelers, Russian and American, from bringing diseases with them into space are in place to protect them once they're back on the ground. Both crew members will be quarantined for a period of time, and a team of doctors will monitor them continuously. Meanwhile, NASA and Roscosmos will take extra care to sanitize all surfaces in the crew's quarters and to limit their contact with other people.