Spaceflight continues to feel the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday, NASA took the unexpected step to ground a September satellite launch due to pandemic-related shortages of liquid oxygen (LOX), and there may be more launch delays yet to come.
The Delta variant has seen an increase in demand for oxygen, which means that ICU admissions and hospitalization rates have returned to levels at the beginning of the pandemic. However, oxygen is not only used for ventilators. LOX is used in space industries as an oxidizer for rocket propellants, sometimes in conjunction with liquid hydrogen. It’s because hydrogen reacts with oxygen to make water, which is why steam can build up during launches.
NASA and United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing) announced that the Landsat 9 satellite’s launch date will be September 23.
The LOX shortage could also impact ULA, but it’s not the only potential launch company. SpaceX President Gwynne shotwell stated last week that the shortage of liquid oxygen in launch will impact ULA this year. We will make sure that the hospitals have enough oxygen, but if you know of anyone who might be able to donate liquid oxygen, please send me an email.”
Elon Musk (SpaceX founder and CEO) was more temperate a few days later, posting on Twitter that there is a LOX shortage. He said that it “is a danger, but not yet a limiting element.”
Although this is an issue, it’s not a limitation.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 26, 2021
The gas shortage goes beyond the lack of oxygen. Shipping delays and disruptions caused by coronavirus continue to affect the supply chain. Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, stated on Twitter that a nitrogen transport contractor to Vandenberg Space Force Base (California) was diverted in order to help with LOX deliveries in Florida.
A USG contractor who transports liquid GN2 from VAFB to Florida is supporting the COVID-related LOX effort. This situation is being worked on now. https://t.co/sTyprcRA42
— Tory Bruno (@torybruno) August 25, 2021
The LOX squeeze is not only affecting the space industry. Officials from Orlando, Florida sent out a notice to residents urging them to save water shortly after NASA’s announcement of delay. LOX is used for treating the city’s water supply.
“Nationally, the demand for liquid oxygen is extremely high as the priority for its use is to save lives, which is limiting the supply that [Orlando municipal water utility] OUC is receiving,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said on Facebook. If we don’t reduce the water that we have to treat, there could be adverse effects on our water quality.
As early as May of last year, the nonprofit Center for Global Development called COVID-19 a “wake-up call” for ensuring an adequate supply of oxygen to hospitals.
Publiated at Tue 31 August 2021, 14:46:44 (+0000).