By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut were spending their final weeks on Earth in quarantine before they are scheduled to blast off on April 9 for the International Space Station for six months as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps Earth.

Launching from a pad in Kazakhstan, the Expedition 63 crew will depart Earth without much of the usual fanfare at the Baikonur cosmodrome and ceremonies in Moscow, as the world attempts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 disease through social distancing and citywide lockdowns.

“We are ready to go, we are healthy, we’ve been tested very well with the medical teams,” U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy said Monday in a video from quarantine.

“We’ll be watching from space and we’re very curious to come home in October and see what the world looks like at that time.

“As you well know, over this last month, the situation keeps changing on a daily basis for the worse,” he added. “Our hearts go out to all the people over the world that are dealing with this crisis.”

Some 375,000 people worldwide have caught the flu-like virus and more than 16,000 have died.

Even in ordinary times astronauts go through a “health stabilization” process before launching that includes two weeks in quarantine to ensure they “aren’t sick or incubating an illness when they get to the space station,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said.

As the pandemic evolves, the agency is considering plans to bolster the health stabilization checks.

The space station has continuously staffed astronauts for nearly 20 years, serving as a test bed for an array of scientific research including studies to better understand the human immune system and micro-gravity medical experiments for vital uses on Earth.



(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Stephen Coates)