As a new ISS crew docks, here's how NASA handles coronavirus containment

The Earth may be on lockdown but that hasn't stopped NASA and the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos sending a new crew to the International Space Station today. The launch went as scheduled this morning, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with the three crew members aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

It wasn't a long trip. The three – NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner – docked with the International Space Station at 10:13am EDT today, just over six hours after Expedition 63's launch.

The hatches can't be thrown open straight away, mind. It takes roughly two hours for the required leak checks and pressurization balances to be undertaken, to ensure that the seal between the spacecraft and the ISS is secure. On the other side of the hatch are Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, along with NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan.

For NASA, quarantine is an old friend

While down on the ground we're still getting used to self-isolation and quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic, for NASA and Roscosmos it's no new process. Crews headed into space already undertake a two week quarantine before the scheduled launch date. That makes sure they're not sick and simply showing no symptoms of that.

It's known as "health stabilization," and it involves isolation of the crew from all but a short list of people. NASA and Roscosmos clear anybody who needs direct contact, and the team lives in specially-cleaned quarters for the whole period. It's a chance to go over the mission plans again, work out, and rest.

Like most of us are now finding, video calls are a vital stopgap for social contact. Just as the new ISS residents will find while they're aboard the orbiting research platform, video calling is used during the quarantine period to keep in touch with family and others on the team.

Back on Earth, a new isolation protocol

For Skripochka, Meir, and Morgan, the countdown is on for their return to Earth. Their stay on the ISS is due to end on April 17, at which point Skripochka and Meir will have been there for a total of six months, and Morgan for eight months.

As with pre-launch, so NASA and Roscosmos have an established protocol for what happens when crews return from space. That normally has a focus on getting used to Earth's gravity again, but the standard health checks are going to get an upgrade too. The COVID-19 pandemic simply wasn't on the radar when the three initially launched.

NASA is already following amended rules during the coronavirus outbreak, and has initiated work-from-home policies for as many of its teams as is feasible. Only the core essentials – such as support for missions that simply cannot be put on hold – are still taking place at facilities. Meanwhile a number of projects have been frozen in order to minimize the likelihood of a COVID-19 breakout.