Pandemic-driven liquid oxygen shortage threatens ULA, SpaceX launches

The ongoing reverberations from the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to make themselves felt in the most unlikely of places: spaceflight. 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.

Demand for oxygen has only risen with the Delta variant, which in many cities pushed hospitalization and ICU admittance rates back to where they were at the start of the pandemic. But oxygen isn’t just used in ventilators. The space industry uses LOX as an oxidizer in rocket propellant, often in combination with other gases like liquid hydrogen. (That’s why there can be so much steam during a launch — it’s the hydrogen reacting with the oxygen to form water.)

NASA and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, said the launch date for the Landsat 9 satellite will now take place on September 23.

ULA isn’t the only launch company to potentially be impacted by the LOX shortage. “We’re actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last week during a panel at the Space Symposium. “We certainly are going to make sure the hospitals are going to have the oxygen that they need, but for anybody who has liquid oxygen to spare, send me an email.”

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, was more tempered a few days later on Twitter, saying that the LOX shortage “is a risk, but not yet a limiting factor.”

Even beyond the actual supply of oxygen, the gas shortage is also being exacerbated by widespread shipping delays as coronavirus-related disruptions continue to impact the supply chain. ULA CEO Tory Bruno added on Twitter that a contractor who handles nitrogen transportation to Vandenberg Space Force Base in California was diverted to assist with LOX delivery in Florida.

It’s not just the space industry that’s feeling the effects of the LOX squeeze: Shortly before NASA announced the launch delay, Orlando, Florida officials sent out a separate notice urging residents to conserve water, as LOX is used to treat 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. “There could be impacts to our water quality if we do not 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” for ensuring an adequate supply of oxygen to hospitals.

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