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NASA looking to play greater role in coronavirus pandemic response

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WASHINGTON — NASA is looking for ways to leverage its expertise and capabilities to support the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, while agency leaders said they would not rush to reopen centers.

In a virtual town hall meeting March 25, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other agency officials said they’re in discussions with other federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, about how the agency can best contribute to efforts to combat the growing pandemic, with more than 65,000 confirmed cases and more than 900 deaths in the United States alone.

“Your agency, NASA, is involved in providing solution sets for the nation, and we will be more and more involved as days go on because we do have an extremely talented, very bright workforce and a lot of capabilities that can help,” Bridenstine said.

One early role is lending the agency’s supercomputing resources to researchers studying the coronavirus to develop treatments and vaccines. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium March 23, which includes NASA as well as the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, companies and universities. NASA is providing access to supercomputers at the Ames Research Center as part of that effort.

NASA is examining other ways it can support the overall coronavirus response. Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, said the agency was part of White House meetings to coordinate the federal government response to the pandemic. Some local and state governments, as well as companies, are contacting field centers as well. “We want that to continue,” he said.

Another avenue is to solicit ideas from agency personnel through an internal challenge. “We’re going to put specific areas where we think we can best contribute, and solicit ideas from anybody across the agency on addressing those challenges and contributing to those areas,” he said. “We’ll prioritize those and we’ll figure out how to get those up and running and resource those.”

One question submitted by agency employees asked if NASA could use its facilities to produce ventilators for hospitals given growing fears of shortages as the pandemic worsens. J.D. Polk, NASA’s chief health and medical officer, said that it was more likely the agency may assist companies that already produce ventilators.

“It may not be just in the building of ventilators, but it may be in helping the companies that already build ventilators change their ventilators,” he said, such as the use of 3-D printing for parts that are in short supply. “That will help us focus our expertise to where the needs really are.” Several NASA offices, he said, would be part of an interagency discussion March 26 regarding increasing the supply of ventilators.

Polk also said that NASA was looking at what personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, it had available to give to hospitals in short supply. “NASA orders its PPE on a just-in-time basis. We don’t have a massive stockpile of PPE to donate,” he said, and much of what is available is needed for its own activities, including launch preparations for the Mars 2020 mission. The agency, though, was looking at how to provide any PPE that might be available to hospitals.


Getting to the “back side of the curve”

Much of the hourlong town hall addressed the status of agency activities. Nine of NASA’s 18 facilities, which include field centers as well as NASA Headquarters and sites run by field centers, are at Stage 4 of its coronavirus response framework, closing them to all personnel except those needed for safety and security and, in a few cases, for those working on essential mission activities. The other facilities are at Stage 3, which also calls for mandatory telework but with more mission-essential personnel working on site.

While the European Space Agency announced March 24 it was suspending operations of four science missions to reduce the number of personnel in its mission control center, Jurczyk said NASA was not planning anything similar for the moment. “We’re looking at that, possibly, if things deteriorate further,” he said. “We’re going to maintain all our missions in space in mostly normal operations for now.”

Others activities are continuing, or resuming, this week. The Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission flew from Ohio, where it recently completed environmental testing, to the Kennedy Space Center on a Super Guppy aircraft March 25.

NASA also said that integration and testing work on the James Webb Space Telescope, paused March 20, has resumed at a Northrop Grumman facility March 25 with “reduced personnel and shifts.” However, that work will last only to early April because of a lack of NASA personnel there. “We’ll assess and adjust decisions as the situation unfolds,” the program said in a tweet.

One issue is when NASA will move back to normal operations. In recent days, President Donald Trump has indicated he would like to “open up” the country by Easter, April 12. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Trump said in a Fox News interview March 24. Most medical experts, and many state and local officials, say that timeline is premature.

Bridenstine, asked about those comments, said there was a “very, very low probability” that the president would act contrary to the recommendations of organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that the president was only “aspirationally” seeking to reopen the economy by Easter. “He’s been very clear that the highest priority on his agenda is the health and safety of America,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine didn’t give a timeline for moving centers back from Stage 3 and 4 towards more normal operations, saying it depends on the “conditions on the ground” at each center, as well as guidance from the federal coronavirus task force and state and local governments. “Certainly, when we get on the back side of the curve here, we need to start thinking about how we go back to work in an orderly way,” he said.

Both Bridenstine and Jurczyk indicated that NASA would take a cautious approach when moving back to normal operations, to avoid trying to resume normal operations too soon and have to deal with another outbreak of the disease. “We’re being very careful about the decision to go from [Stage] 4 to 3, or 3 to 2, and not do it too early,” Jurczyk said, to avoid going back and forth between stages.

Bridenstine encouraged employees to speak out if they felt they were working in unsafe conditions during the pandemic. “Our number-one highest priority as an agency is your health and your safety, and we don’t want to ask you to do anything that you feel is unsafe,” he said.



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Mystery Shipwreck Dates to Before Revolutionary War, Researcher Says

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In 1769, a cargo ship laden with flour, pork and English goods set sail from Salem, Mass., headed to Portland, Maine.

The ship encountered a fierce storm and never made it to its destination. Now a maritime archaeologist believes he may have solved the mystery.

Every few years, the remains of a shipwreck have surfaced on a beach in York, Maine. Its wooden hull, which is about 50 feet long, appeared in 1958 after a storm, and again in 1978, 2007 and 2013, capturing the interest of local residents and visitors to Short Sands Beach. The last time waves exposed its frame was in March 2018.

The Maine Historic Preservation Commission has said it believes the wreckage dates from the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. But the history and identity of the ship remained uncertain in York, a small resort town 45 miles south of Portland.

In 2018, after waves revealed the wreckage again, Mr. Claesson took wood samples from the hull plank and ship frame. The samples were tested at the Cornell University Tree-Ring Laboratory in Ithaca, N.Y., to determine their age.

The analysis suggested that the trees that were felled had a ring date of about 1753.

“Of interest in this particular study was that three different species were used, two that are not commonly used in shipbuilding, that grow right here in New England and northeastern North America,” Carol B. Griggs, a senior research associate at the Tree-Ring Laboratory, said on Sunday.

Whether the ship is the Defiance or another vessel, it was built in 1753 or soon after, and most likely somewhere along the New England coast, she said.

After combing through historical and notary records, including a firsthand account he found at the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum in Rowley, Mass., Mr. Claesson learned that there was a sloop called the Defiance that had been wrecked in York in 1769.

He also found that a sloop with the same name “was coincidentally built in 1754 in Massachusetts, which fits well with out tree-ring dates of circa 1753,” he said.

Mr. Claesson said his research found that the Defiance was traveling from Salem and headed for Portland when it encountered a storm.

“They took anchor, but in heavy seas the crew was forced to cut the anchor cables, and were pushed ashore onto York Beach,” Mr. Claesson said. “The ship was a total loss, but the crew survived.”

“It would be great to have a chance to conduct a more detailed archaeological investigation to understand how the ship was designed and built, and confirm the identification as Defiance,” he said. “We may not have too many more opportunities to document marine architecture of this vintage, and tell the story of these early American seafarers.”



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Top Democrats Press Treasury to Accelerate Airline Bailout

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WASHINGTON — Top Democratic lawmakers have urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to quickly provide American airlines with direct payroll assistance and to avoid insisting on overly restrictive terms that could deter companies from taking the money.

Major airlines began submitting their applications for government support to the Treasury Department on Friday but there is growing concern within the industry that Mr. Mnuchin will demand strict terms to ensure that taxpayers are compensated, such as large equity stakes in the companies. Some of the airlines, which have seen demand plummet as the coronavirus pandemic has stalled global travel, are wary of giving the government too much control over their businesses and accepting strict conditions tied to the aid.

Democrats fear that if Mr. Mnuchin drives too hard of a bargain, airlines will balk and lay off more workers. In a letter that was sent to Mr. Mnuchin on Sunday, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that it would not be in the public interest if the airlines chose to declare bankruptcy.

“Assistance must not come with unreasonable conditions that would force an employer to choose bankruptcy instead of providing payroll grants to its workers,” they wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by The New York Times on Sunday.

The lawmakers said that they recognized the Treasury Department’s need to protect taxpayer money being used to bail out industries and to seek warrants — options to buy stock in a company — in exchange for government assistance. But they said that the administration must ensure that the companies commit to protecting workers, which was the intent of the law signed by President Trump. The letter was co-signed by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the banking committee, and Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“We urge you to quickly and fairly enter into direct payroll assistance agreements with each of the carriers and contractors provided for in the law,” they said.

The $2 trillion economic stabilization package that Congress passed last month earmarked $25 billion in grants and another $25 billion in loans for the industry. Cargo carriers were also allocated $8 billion of grants and loans. Airlines are expected to maintain their staffing levels through the end of September if they accept the money.

Last week, the Treasury Department laid out the application process for airlines and asked them to propose how they would compensate the government for aid. Mr. Mnuchin is working with investment banks to help negotiate the terms and said last Thursday that he had selected PJT Partners to work with the airlines and Moelis & Company to focus on cargo carriers.

The department has been under pressure to ensure that taxpayer money is protected and that the government does not just hand a blank check to companies, especially those that have spent several years using their cash to engage in stock buybacks, which reward shareholders. Major airlines spent $19 billion repurchasing their own shares over the last three years.



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Finland and Coronavirus: ‘Prepper Nation of the Nordics’ Isn’t Worried About Masks

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STOCKHOLM — As some nations scramble to find protective gear to fight the coronavirus pandemic, Finland is sitting on an enviable stockpile of personal protective equipment like surgical masks, putting it ahead of less-prepared Nordic neighbors.

The stockpile, considered one of Europe’s best and built up over years, includes not only medical supplies, but also oil, grains, agricultural tools and raw materials to make ammunition. Norway, Sweden and Denmark had also amassed large stockpiles of medical and military equipment, fuel and food during the Cold War era. Later, most all but abandoned those stockpiles.

But not Finland. Its preparedness has cast a spotlight on national stockpiles and exposed the vulnerability of other Nordic nations.

When the coronavirus hit, the Finnish government tapped into its supply of medical equipment for the first time since World War II.

French officials said they were outbid at the last minute by unknown American buyers for a stock of masks on the tarmac of a Chinese airport.

And German officials previously said the Trump administration had attempted to persuade a local firm developing a possible coronavirus vaccine to move its research to the United States, where presumably any inoculation would be available first.

Perhaps in response to the threat of shortages, the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, announced on March 19 that it was creating its first ever stockpile of medical equipment “to help E.U. countries in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Several E. U. countries have also passed new legislation banning the export of essential materials.

When the medical device company Mölnlycke Health Care, based in Gothenburg, Sweden, tried to send masks and rubber gloves several weeks ago to desperate hospitals in Italy and Spain from its central storage center in Lyon, France, it was blocked by France’s export ban.

“It’s very disturbing; nothing that is sent into France can be sent out of the country,” Richard Twomey, the chief executive of Mölnlycke Health Care, told the Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Radio.

One French newspaper described the conflict between the Swedish producer and the French authorities as the “War of masks between Sweden and France.”

On Saturday, however, Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, said on Twitter that after pressure from Sweden, France had finally relented on the export restrictions on masks from Mölnlycke. It was “very important that the internal market works even in times of crisis!” she said.

“It’s not really a great plan,” Mr. Melander noted. “It’s like saying: ‘I don’t have to have a fire extinguisher. I can run out and buy a fire extinguisher when the fire starts.’ It shows that this free market is only free when everything is fine.”

The Swedish public service broadcaster SVT Nyheter reported on Sunday that hospitals were running out of the anesthetic Propofol, a drug used during surgery and, in some cases, to treat Covid-19 patients on ventilators.

But though Sweden may have neglected the country’s stockpiles, it has encouraged residents to create their own private stores. The recommendations in the brochure “If Crisis or War Comes,” delivered to residents’ mailboxes almost two years ago, covered food, water, warm clothes and candles, and encouraged stocking up on hand sanitizer and extra medicine.

Norway used to be more resilient and equipped to be self-sustaining in a national crisis, according to Leif Inge Magnussen, associate professor of leadership at the University of Southeastern Norway. But a risk analysis last year by the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection concluded that pandemics and medicine shortages were key concerns, he said.

Audun Haga, director of the Norwegian Medicines Agency, said the country could exhaust supplies of essential medicine within weeks, since much of it comes from China, which is only just beginning to reopen its factories.

“Society has become very dependent on other countries and just-in-time supply chains,” Mr. Magnussen said.

Some Nordic countries that have not prepped like Finland are scrambling for alternatives to reorganize domestic production of medical supplies.

In Norway, the medical equipment company Laerdal and a partner promised to deliver 1,000 emergency ventilators by the end of May.





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