The ongoing reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt in the most unlikely place: spaceflight. NASA took the unexpected step of anchoring a satellite launch in September on Friday due to liquid oxygen (LOX) shortages linked to a pandemic, and there could be more launch delays ahead.
Oxygen demand only increased with the Delta variant, which in many cities brought hospitalization and intensive care admission rates to their levels at the start of the pandemic. But oxygen isn’t just used in ventilators. The space industry uses LOX as an oxidant in the rocket propellant, often in combination with other gases such as liquid hydrogen. (This is why there can be so much vapor on a launch – it’s hydrogen reacting with oxygen to form water.)
NASA and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have said the Landsat 9 satellite launch date will now be September 23.
ULA is not the only launch company potentially affected by the LOX shortage. “We’re actually going to be affected this year by the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said last week during a panel at the Space Symposium. “We’ll definitely make sure hospitals have the oxygen they need, but for anyone with liquid oxygen to spare, email me.”
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, was more tempered a few days later on Twitter, saying that the LOX shortage “is a risk, but not yet a limiting factor.”
It is a risk, but not yet a limiting factor
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 26, 2021
Even beyond the actual supply of oxygen, the gas shortage is also being exacerbated by widespread shipping delays, as disruptions from the coronavirus continue to impact the supply chain. ULA CEO Tory Bruno added on Twitter that a contractor who deals with transporting nitrogen to Vandenberg Space Force Base in California has been hijacked to help deliver LOX in Florida.
USG contractor transporting liquid GN2 to VAFB is helping COVID-related LOX effort in Florida. Work this situation now. https://t.co/sTyprcRA42
– Tory Bruno (@torybruno) 25 August 2021
It’s not just the space industry feeling the effects of the LOX squeeze: Shortly before NASA announced the launch delay, officials in Orlando, Fla. Sent a separate advisory urging residents save water because the LOX is used to treat the city’s water supply.
“Nationally, the demand for liquid oxygen is extremely high because the priority of its use is to save lives, which limits the supply that [Orlando municipal water utility] OUC receives, ”Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said on Facebook. “There could be impacts on the quality of our water if we don’t immediately reduce the amount of water we need to treat. “
As early as May of last year, the nonprofit Center for Global Development called COVID-19 a “wake-up call” to ensure an adequate supply of oxygen to hospitals.