Inside NASA’s crash effort to help fight coronavirus

Who is contributing ideas?

They’re largely coming from our scientific and engineering workforce. For the most part, we asked for ideas in three specific areas. One around personal protective equipment, one around ventilation and one around monitoring and forecasting of Covid-19 spread and environmental and societal impacts. The nature of those topics draws from our scientific and engineering workforce. We did invite any other ideas folks had. We’re getting ideas that range from creative ways to use the NASA workforce’s skills to the use of NASA facilities.

Can you share any of the top ideas?

We’re in the midst right now of triaging the ideas. … We’re getting a number of ideas around sterilization and the reuse of face shields, masks and other personal protective equipment. There’s a lot of energy around that.

We really have to assess the ideas themselves. I don’t want to call out any one idea in particular. We’re really trying to connect them right now to other activities going on in the agency, so it’s a little premature to say this particular idea is a good one.

How will the review process work?

We are reaching out to experts around the agency who have knowledge of specific areas that touch upon these. We have folks in sterilization, because we sterilize spacecraft before we launch them. … We have a number of folks who have come up with ideas that relate to … 3D printing, so we’re calling on those experts, and having teams review those ideas in those areas to start to figure out if this is something that could fill a Covid-related need in a timely fashion. …

We have teams that are looking through the ideas through those lenses. Then if there are things that come out that we feel like NASA isn’t the proper entity to lead, but its more appropriate for another agency to consider, we’ll be sharing those with colleagues in other agencies.

Then it’s a matter of implementation. We’re looking at capabilities we have at our centers. We’re looking at resources, both people as well as dollars, and potentially working with external partners. This is a complex situation. … We don’t have all of the answers for implementation, but our intent is to explore all avenues as well as potential partnerships, too. There are a lot of people right now in the world who are looking to help solve the problems of manufacturing and other things NASA wouldn’t be in position to do.

Why is NASA’s workforce uniquely suited to contribute to this?

I don’t want to give the impression that NASA can comprehensively solve the problems of Covid-19. It’s something that has to be led by experts in the medical field, which is not our primary mission. But we recognize that we have expertises. … The number one thing that’s out there is sterilization methods because we do it routinely for instrumentation and spacecraft that go to other planets. We work in clean rooms. We use personal protective equipment regularly, so this is part of the routine of what we do even though it’s not in a medical environment.

It’s a matter of applying the sorts of systems engineering thinking and other strains of engineering to the problems at hand. NASA has shown time and again the ability to take those expertises and parlay them into a number of different applications in the world.

Are people able to work on these problems remotely?

Yes, reviewers are working remotely. … As far as implementation, we imagine that many of the ideas specific to sterilizing personal protective equipment for example … are things [where people] would quite likely need access to centers. The agency has to review those on a case-by-case basis as with all of our work.

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