COVID-19 is forcing civil space agencies such as NASA to adjust how some of their employees are getting work done. While the change hopefully reduces the chances of spreading it, does its necessarily prolonged use increase the likelihood of employees wanting to remain in a home environment while working?
A look is warranted.
While the global launch service industry responses to COVID-19 seems to be all over the map, less varied are the responses of the civil space agencies from Europe and the United States. These agencies are responsible for multiple space-focused projects and programs. The one solution the larger space agencies are turning to is possibly a solution that may cause the public (and agency workforces) to question why the agencies weren't using it in the first place: telework.
European Space Activities
How these schedule moves will impact customers, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), remains to be determined. ESA is already implementing changes to ensure its employees are minimally exposed to COVID-19. Thursday last week, the agency, alongside Roscosmos, announced the decision to postpone their joint Mars mission. By the next day, ESA decided to have its employees work from home and to close its facilities to the public, where possible:
"On Friday March 13, ESA employees were asked to telework from home wherever possible until further notice.
As a consequence, external visitors (including ESA employees from other sites) will not be granted access to ESA's establishments and facilities until further notice.
All meetings, if not postponed, will be organised via videoconference/remote connection, please contact your ESA point of contact."
ESA's implementation of its decision is hopefully not complicated by the fact that it is an international creature. One can imagine offices in France following guidance differently than those in Italian ESA centers.
ESA's Friday announcement is rather tame compared with the latest measures European governments are currently implementing. However, considering the type of work ESA's workforce is associated with, the Agency's steps, aside from completely shutting down, are reasonable. And ESA's measures ultimately accomplish what's so necessary for preventing the spread of COVID-19 among its employees, which is: keep people away from each other. But a side effect will be the temporary halting of contract work, as ESA is likely enforcing this solution among the companies it's hired as well.
NASA's Right Behind
NASA is conducting similar actions for its workforce, with some of its centers initially implementing telework programs Friday. The space administration's travel office mentioned something involving a "phased response," and noted it was working on the following essential task:
"NASA leadership also is monitoring conferences to determine risk and will continue to provide guidance on attendance accordingly."
NASA Headquarters looks to be following the federal government's Office of Personnel Management's guidance, which was provided a few days after NASA's centers took action:
If you've ever seen the size of the office buildings on many of NASA's campuses, you'll realize there's the potential for a lot of telework. Maybe this could be an excellent money-saving solution long-term? In the meantime, it's an established, but little-used solution (by U.S. civil agencies) that allows NASA's employees to do whatever work they can from home. Probably more comfortably and more effectively.
NASA's projects and programs will suffer more delays--probably a half-year or more based on the latest projections for getting COVID-19 under control. Because those programs aren't of a life-or-death nature (except to a certain Alabama senator), the delays are fine. Programs such as NASA's perpetually-delayed Space Launch System and Orion capsule or the James Webb Space Telescope are not so important. The delays are bad news for contractors involved with those types of programs (which in turn is bad news for economies depending on those contractors). But those programs are not worth the potential consequences.
What is essential is ensuring International Space Station (ISS) astronauts/cosmonauts remain safe, in contact, and get what they need to survive on the ISS. NASA probably already has a plan in place to deal with this sort of thing.
As with ESA's measures, NASA's telework implementation will likely accomplish what's needed to keep COVID-19 in check for its workforce: no people physically interacting with each other. It's time NASA used "telecommuting" as a rule for its workforce. After all, it's been nearly 50 years since one of its employees started (for a NASA communications system no less) this slowly growing trend of remotely working from home. To use NASA's parlance and criteria-- it's a space "spin-off," one which the administration itself has neglected.
A Few Other Agencies
Across the Pacific, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is closing its exhibition centers to visitors. While JAXA doesn't appear to have announced telework plans, the closing of exhibition centers shows the agency is concerned about COVID-19 transmission. Further west, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) doesn't appear to be implementing any COVID-19 strategies. It will not be surprising if both organizations turn to telework for minimizing COVID-19 transmission opportunities among their employees.
For the world's larger space agencies, then the approach to COVID-19 appears to be one of minimizing risk, and the simplest way to do that is to keep employees gainfully employed at home (if possible). Telework may be the only way some of the U.S. space industry workforce works, for at least the next five months.
As a remote worker myself, I have to wonder if those employees will come to understand just how nice it is not to commute. How nice it is to walk to the refrigerator a few feet away for whatever food appeals. How wonderful it is to work with speakers blaring their favorite music (so long as the rest of the family is elsewhere). And--to not have to worry about catching the cold, flu, or virus of choice from an unknowing, or worse, inconsiderate, co-worker.
Maybe, when the time comes to return to the office, enough of the space workforce will understand just how sick and unnatural that environment is, and do something about it. Maybe their managers will see just how much more productive their employees were at home and encourage them to keep working from home.
It seems that primal fear in these civil space agencies is overriding a lesser worry, resulting in possible positive outcomes for the future of the workplace for the space workforce. The fear of disease and death trumps a manager's fear of loss of perceived control of employees in the workspace.
18 Mar--looks like NASA is going all in on telework for at least the next few weeks. The administration's employees and contractors will do remote work. I'm assuming "mission-essential" should only be for folks working the ISS program.