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Coronavirus restrictions stop astronaut's family from attending launch

In final training for launch next month to the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy already expected to be following standard quarantine protocols in Star City near Moscow before the global coronavirus outbreak began its exponential growth.

Now everyone around him at the Russian cosmonaut training center is in quarantine with him and his two Russian crewmates, and travel restrictions have been implemented that will prevent his family from attending launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 9.

"If you'd asked me eight months ago, I could have told you, hey, this week, these two weeks, I will be in quarantine. But it would have been for a different reason," he said in a satellite interview with CBS News. "I'm still in quarantine, but so is everybody else around us."

"Probably the biggest impact is this past week, had it been in normal quarantine, I probably could have gone out to some restaurants and left the immediate (vicinity) of the Star City area and just been smart about where we went. But not this time. We've been sort of isolated to our cottages and just the essential places we go to get food."

Astronaut Chris Cassidy, left, Soyuz MS-16/62S commander Anatoly Ivanishin, center, and flight engineer Ivan Vagner take a break outside a simulator at the cosmonaut training center in Star City near Moscow. The trio is in final training for launch April 9 on a flight to the International Space Station. NASA

Fortunately for Cassidy, his wife Peggy was able to accompany him to Star City earlier this month and has been with him throughout. Asked if there was any chance he might have come in contact with COVID-19, he said "I really haven't been around anybody else, so it'd be really, really strange if if I did contract something."

"You know, of course, anything can happen between now and April 9, but we're being really super vigilant so that I can remain healthy to get to the station."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Cassidy said "it was a real lucky opportunity" that he was able to spend the time with his wife, who was expected to fly back home to Houston Friday — three weeks earlier than originally expected.

"It would be a really crushing blow if we were not together during this month and then she was not able to get to Baikonur," he said. "Unbeknownst to us, our goodbye would have been back in Houston on February 28th or 29th, and we wouldn't have known that. I'm very fortunate that we've been together for this month."

A former Navy SEAL, Cassidy has flown in space twice, including a long-duration stay aboard the space station. He is scheduled to blast off from Baikonur aboard the Soyuz MS-16/62S spacecraft on April 9 along with vehicle commander Anatoli Ivanishin and co-pilot Ivan Vagner.

U.S. astronauts flying aboard Soyuz spacecraft are allowed 15 guests for launch. Thanks to coronavirus travel restrictions preventing non-Russian passport holders from flying home through Russia, Cassidy's wife and three children will not be able to attend.

"I will have no launch guests at at the Baikonur Cosmodrome," he told CBS News. "The launch guests who go into and out of Moscow to get the Baikonur couldn't get back through Moscow. So that closed the gates for us. ... And so none of those folks will come."

Launch preparations at Baikonur are tightly scripted by the Russians. On launch day, crews are cheered on by local crowds and they get a final chance to chat with friends and family before heading for the launch pad.

"What's super cool normally is you come walking out of the hotel where we stay for the whole two weeks that we're down there, and there's music playing, and there's crowds of people lining the walkway as we proceed from the hotel to the buses. And it's very, very motivating. It's super exciting."

This time around, he said, "it'll be completely quiet. There won't be anybody there. We'll just kind of walk out. Maybe we'll still play music and fire the three of us up ourselves, but who knows?"

Eight days after Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner arrive, the station's current crew — Expedition 62 commander Oleg Skripochka, Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan — will return to Earth with a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan. From that point forward, Cassidy and his crewmates will have the lab to themselves until a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft gets there in May or June.

Chris Cassidy, left, Anatoly Ivanishin, center, and Ivan Vagner meet with Russian officials overseeing final exams before launch April 9 aboard as Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station. NASA

NASA managers had expected to already be launching astronauts aboard SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew ships by now, ending the agency's sole reliance on the Soyuz. Equally important, the new crew ships are needed to ensure the presence of three to four U.S.-sponsored astronauts aboard the station at all times to carry out a full slate of scientific research.

Anticipating the advent of U.S. commercial crew ships, Russia scaled back production of its three-seat Soyuz spacecraft and only two will be launched this year: the Soyuz MS-16/62S vehicle April 9 and the second around October 14.

But the commercial crew program has suffered a series of setbacks and delays, and the first piloted test flight, carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, is now targeted for launch around May 13. If all goes well, a second Crew Dragon, carrying astronauts Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover, will arrive at the station in the mid-summer timeframe.

In the meantime, Cassidy will be hard pressed to carry out a significant amount of research while handling day-to-day maintenance chores. But he's optimistic that state of affairs is about to change.

"The energy, the momentum, the excitement is really kind of building for summertime, realistic summertime arrivals," he said. "We chatted before, when I was chief astronaut and we were talking about this same flight. I think we all had guarded enthusiasm back then. Now it's real."

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