AFP, published on Monday, August 15, 2022 at 8:10 p.m.
“I’ve worked here for 37 years and it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with.” Rick LaBrode is NASA flight director, and at the end of the month it is his responsibility to carry out a historic space mission: the first of the program that will mark the return of Americans to the Moon.
The day before takeoff, “I’m not going to be able to sleep much, that’s for sure,” he told AFP, in front of dozens of screens in the flight control room in Houston, Texas.
For the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972, a rocket, the most powerful in the world, will propel a habitable capsule to orbit around the Moon, before returning to Earth.
Starting in 2024, astronauts will embark on the same trip, and the following year (at the earliest), they will set foot on the Moon again.
For this first 42-day test mission, called Artemis 1, about ten people will be at all times in the famous “Mission Control Center” room, modernized for the occasion.
The teams have been rehearsing the flight plan for three years.
“It’s all brand new. A completely new rocket, a completely new ship, a completely new control center”, sums up Brian Perry, who will be at the console in charge of the trajectory right after launch.
“I can tell you that my heart will go + bam bam, bam bam +, but I’ll make sure to stay focused,” patting his chest, he told AFP, who has participated in many space shuttle flights.
– Moon Pool –
Beyond the control room, the entire Johnson Space Center in Houston has been set to lunar time.
In the middle of the huge pool of more than 12 meters deep where astronauts train, a black curtain has been drawn.
On the one hand, there is still the submerged replica of the International Space Station.
On the other hand, a lunar environment is created at the bottom of the basin, with gigantic rock models, manufactured by a company specializing in aquarium decoration.
“We started putting sand on the bottom of the pool just a few months ago. The big rocks arrived two weeks ago,” Lisa Shore, deputy director of the Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), told AFP. “Everything is still in development.”
In the water, astronauts can experience a sensation close to weightlessness. For lunar training, they weigh themselves so that they only feel one-sixth of their weight.
From a room above the pool, they are guided remotely, with the four-second delay they will have on the Moon.
Six astronauts have already trained there, and another six will follow in late September, donning NASA’s new lunar suits for the first time.
“The heyday of this building was when we were still flying the shuttles and building the space station,” said NBL chief John Haas. At that time, there were 400 combined training sessions per year, compared to 150 today. But the Artemis program brings a new impetus.
At the time of AFP’s visit, engineers and divers were assessing how to push a cart on the Moon.
– ‘New golden age’ –
Water workouts can last up to six hours. “It’s like running a marathon, twice, but in your hands,” Victor Glover, a NASA astronaut who returned from six months in space, told AFP.
Today he works in a building entirely dedicated to simulators. Their role is to help “verify procedures and material”, so that when those to go to the Moon are finally chosen (of which Mr. Glover could be one), they can prepare intensively and quickly be “ready to go”. “. “.
Thanks to virtual reality headsets, they will be able to get used to walking in the difficult light conditions of the South Pole of the Moon, where the Artemis missions will land. There, the Sun rises very little above the horizon, constantly casting long, very black shadows.
They will also have to familiarize themselves with new ships and their software, such as the Orion capsule. In one of the simulators, sitting in the commander’s seat, you have to hit the joystick to dock with the future lunar space station, Gateway.
Furthermore, a replica of the capsule, with a volume of 9 cubic meters for four passengers, is used for full-size tests.
The astronauts “do a lot of emergency evacuation training here,” Debbie Korth, deputy director of the Orion project, on which she has been working for more than ten years, tells AFP.
Throughout the space center, “people are excited,” she says.
For NASA, “certainly I think it’s a new golden age” that is beginning.
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