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Science and technology

In Houston, NASA in working order to return to the Moon

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published on Monday, August 15, 2022 at 06:46

“I’ve worked here for 37 years, and it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve ever been involved in.” Rick LaBrode is flight director at NASA, and at the end of the month, it is under his responsibility that a historic space mission will take place: the first of the program to mark 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 the 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. From 2024, astronauts will board to make the same journey, and the following year (at the earliest), they will again set foot on the Moon.

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

The teams have been rehearsing the flight plan for three years.

“It’s all completely new. A whole new rocket, a whole new ship, a whole new control center”, summarizes Brian Perry, who will be at the console in charge of the trajectory just after launch.

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

– Lunar pool –

Beyond the control room, the entire Johnson Space Center in Houston has been set to moon time.

In the middle of the huge swimming pool more than 12 meters deep where the astronauts train, a black curtain has been drawn. On one side is still the submerged replica of the International Space Station. On the other, a lunar environment is gradually created at the bottom of the basin, with gigantic 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 lunar training, they are weighted so that they only feel one-sixth of their weight.

From a room above the pool, they are guided remotely, with the four-second time lag they will face on the Moon.

Six astronauts have already trained there, and six others are to follow by the end of September, putting on 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 the time, 400 combination 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 evaluating how to push a trolley on the Moon.

– “New golden age” –

Water workouts 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 entirely dedicated to simulators. His role is to help “check the procedures and the material”, so that when those who will go to the Moon are finally chosen (of which Mr. Glover could be one), they can be prepared intensively and be quickly ” 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 forming 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, seated in the commander’s seat, you have to 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 rehearsals.

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

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

For NASA, “certainly, I believe that it is a new golden age” which is beginning.

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