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Rocket launches impacted by a lack of liquid oxygen needed to treat COVID patients

One launch has already been delayed due to the limited supply of liquid oxygen.
Credit: SpaceX
Official SpaceX image of rocket engines firing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/spacex/51135650621/

TAMPA, Fla. — Impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic have reached into several facets of everyday life like mask-wearing and closures, but the latest target is one you may not have considered — rocket launches. 

That's because the liquid oxygen needed to support those hospitalized with COVID and on ventilators also plays a key role in ensuring rockets get off the ground come launch day.

Liquid oxygen, otherwise known as LOX, serves as an oxidizer that, among other things, fuels rocket engines for liftoff. And with an already short supply in states like Florida being spread thin across hospitals, the space industry is taking a back seat. 

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During the 36th Space Symposium, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell addressed the shortage's impact on the top commercial space company's ability to launch.

"We're actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch. We certainly are going to make sure hospitals have the liquid oxygen they need," several media outlets report Shotwell said during a panel discussion.

She later asked for anyone with liquid oxygen to spare to get in touch with her. In response, to Shotwell's statement, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that while the shortage is a risk, it is "not yet a limiting factor."

SpaceX isn't the only company feeling the impact, NASA and United Launch Alliance also recently had to delay the launch of the Landsat 9 spacecraft due to a lack of liquid oxygen. 

"Current pandemic demands for medical liquid oxygen have impacted the delivery of the needed liquid nitrogen supply to Vandenberg by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and its supplier Airgas," a press release reads.

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Officials say efforts are underway to increase the Space Force base's supply, but no specifics were given on how that would occur before the spacecraft's new target launch date of Sept. 23.

President and CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno also addressed the issue saying a contractor was assisting with the "COVID related LOX effort" in Florida.

The shortage of liquid oxygen seen across Florida, and other parts of the country, also hits close to home for the greater Tampa Bay area.

In August, Tampa decided to temporarily begin using chlorine in its water disinfection process, while people living in other parts of Hillsborough County and Orlando were asked to eliminate non-essential water use — all due to a lack of liquid oxygen

"The recent spikes in COVID-19 related hospitalizations in Florida and other hotspots have made it necessary to prioritize oxygen for medical use over most non-medical applications, in order to respond to the growing needs of COVID patients. Medical oxygen prioritization will remain in place as long as necessary to meet this extreme demand," the Compressed Gas Association said.

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As the United States continues to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the surging delta variant and hospitalizations, the space industry awaits the possibility of future launch impacts.

It's unclear how long the stretch on liquid oxygen could persist and if more launches will see similar delays to LandSat 9.