In Houston, NASA in operational condition to return to the Moon

published on Monday 15 August 2022 at 06:46

“I’ve worked here for 37 years and this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with.” Rick LaBrode is the flight director at NASA, and at the end of the month it is under his responsibility that a historic space mission takes place: the first in the program that marks the return of the 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 monitors in the air traffic 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 the Moon before returning to Earth. From 2024, the astronauts board to make the same journey, and the following year (at the earliest) they set foot on the Moon again.

For this first 42-day test mission, called Artemis 1, about ten people will be in space at all times in the famous “Mission Control Center”, modernized for the occasion.

The teams have practiced the flight plan for three years.

“It’s all brand new. A brand new rocket, a brand new ship, a brand new control center,” sums up Brian Perry, who will be at the console in charge of the orbit right after launch.

“I can tell you my heart will go + bam bam, bam bam + but I will make sure to stay focused,” he told AFP, patting his chest, the man who has participated in many space shuttle flights. .

– Lunar pool –

Except for the control room, the entire Johnson Space Center in Houston has been set to lunar time.

A black curtain has been drawn in the middle of the more than 12 meter deep swimming pool where the astronauts train. On one side is still the submerged replica of the International Space Station. On the other hand, a lunar environment is gradually created at the bottom of the pool with giant models of rocks, manufactured by a company specializing in aquarium decorations.

“We started putting sand on the bottom of the pool only a few months ago. The big rocks arrived two weeks ago,” Lisa Shore, deputy head of the Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), told AFP. “Everything is still in development.”

In water, astronauts can experience a sensation close to weightlessness. For moon training, they are weighted so that they feel only one-sixth of their weight.

From a room above the pool, they are remotely controlled, with the four-second time delay they will encounter on the Moon.

Six astronauts have already trained there, and six more are due to follow by the end of September, donning NASA’s new moon 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 the time, 400 combine training sessions were conducted per year, compared to around 150 today. But the Artémis program brings new momentum.

At the time of AFP’s visit, engineers and divers were assessing how to push a trolley on the Moon.

– “New Golden Age” –

Water training can last up to six hours. “It’s like running a marathon twice, but on your hands,” Victor Glover, a NASA astronaut who returned from six months in space, told AFP.

Today he works in a building dedicated exclusively to simulators. His role is to help “check the procedures and material” so that when those going to the Moon are finally selected (of which Mr. Glover could be one) they can be intensively prepared and quickly “ready to go”.

Thanks to virtual reality headsets, they will be able to get used to walking in the difficult lighting conditions at the Moon’s South Pole, where the Artemis missions will land. There, the Sun rises very little above the horizon and constantly forms 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 must give the joystick to dock with the future lunar space station, Gateway.

Elsewhere, a replica of the capsule, with a volume of 9 cubic meters for four passengers, is used for life-size exercises.

Astronauts “do a lot of emergency evacuation training here,” Debbie Korth, deputy manager of the Orion project, which she has worked on for more than a decade, told AFP.

Throughout the space center, “people are excited,” she says.

For NASA, “I definitely think it’s a new golden age” that’s beginning.

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