According to SpaceX president Gwynn Shotwell, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a liquid oxygen (LOX) shortage that makes it difficult to obtain this important component of rocket fuel for its Falcon 9 rockets. Liquid oxygen is used by hospitals to provide oxygen for patients who have illnesses like COVID-19 that severely impact their respiratory systems.
In SpaceX’s rocket engines, LOX is used as an oxidizer to ignite liquid kerosene, which is used as a propellant. At the Space Symposium event, Shotwell requested that anyone who has LOX to spare send her an email, although she did acknowledge that hospitals should get priority if they are feeling the pinch.
Hospitals are currently facing challenges having supplies of liquid oxygen delivered or creating liquid oxygen with their own equipment. The process of generating liquid oxygen involves extracting it from the atmosphere and chilling it to a frigid -300⁰ Fahrenheit. The equipment used to chill oxygen to that low temperature could form excessive amounts of ice, which can cause it to stop functioning.
“You can completely—literally, completely—shut down an entire hospital supply if that happens,” University of Cincinnati respiratory therapist Rich Branson told Advisory.com.
The liquid oxygen shortage is impacting more than hospitals and the aerospace industry. Some U.S. cities like Tampa and Orlando are requesting that residents conserve water or changing the way that they treat the city’s water supply to conserve liquid oxygen.
Cases of COVID-19 have surged in the United States recently, especially in states like Florida and Texas. Hospitals report being overwhelmed with cases to the point where they have been turning away some people with serious conditions. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is currently fighting against mask mandates in schools and has been criticized for promoting questionable treatments for COVID-19. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has blocked local governments from issuing vaccine mandates and businesses in the state from requiring that consumers show proof of vaccination before entering their premises. In a statement, Abbott urged the Texas state legislature to get involved, saying that his goal is to avoid an unpredictable “patchwork of vaccine mandates across Texas.”
The liquid oxygen shortage could delay some of SpaceX’s plans, such as launching and deploying the next generation of its Starlink satellites that will have a built-in capability for laser communications and thrusters that can deorbit them when they malfunction. SpaceX is already facing challenges in manufacturing the satellites and Starlink terminals due to the global semiconductor chip shortage, though it anticipates that it will eventually be able to slash the price of the terminals.
SpaceX may be forced to prioritize some launches due to the LOX shortage. It currently has contracts to launch cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, as well as launch components for the Lunar Gateway and the Jupiter-destined Europa Clipper. Work on the lunar lander for the Artemis Program is currently on hold due to a lawsuit brought by Blue Origin against NASA, alleging irregularities in the space agency’s awarding of the contract to SpaceX.