“I’ve worked here for 37 years and it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever been a part of.” Rick LaBrode is NASA’s director of flight and later this month he will be in charge of a historic space mission: the program’s first to return home of Americans to mark the moon.
The day before departure, “I won’t 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 world’s most powerful – will propel a habitable capsule into orbit around the moon before returning to Earth.
From 2024, astronauts will board for the same journey and will not set foot on the moon again until the following year at the earliest.
For this first 42-day test mission, called Artémis 1, around ten people will be present at all times in the room of the famous “Mission Control Center”, which has been modernized for the occasion.
The teams rehearsed 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 in charge of the trajectory right after launch at the console.
“I can tell you my heart will go + bam bam, bam bam + but I’ll make sure to stay focused,” he told AFP, patting his chest, he who has taken part in many space shuttle flights . .
Beyond the control room, the entire Johnson Space Center in Houston was set to lunar time.
A black curtain is drawn in the middle of the huge pool, more than 12 meters deep, in which the astronauts train.
On one side is the submerged replica of the International Space Station.
On the other hand, a lunar environment gradually emerges at the bottom of the tank, with gigantic stone models made by a company specializing in aquarium decorations.
“We only started putting sand on the bottom of the pool a few months ago. The big rocks arrived two weeks ago,” Lisa Shore, assistant director of the Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), told AFP. “Everything is still in development.”
Astronauts can experience a feeling of weightlessness in the water. For lunar training, they are weighted so that they only feel one-sixth their weight.
From a room above the pool they are controlled remotely, with the four second time delay they are faced with on the moon.
Six astronauts have already trained there, and six more are to follow by the end of September and wear 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 chairman John Haas. At that time, 400 combination training sessions were carried out each year, today there are around 150. But the Artémis program brings new impetus.
At the time of AFP’s visit, engineers and divers were studying how to push a trolley onto 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 after six months in space, told AFP.
Today he works in a building entirely dedicated to simulators. His role is to help “review the procedures and materials” so that those who will go to the moon, if eventually chosen (which Mr. Glover may include), prepare extensively and quickly “ready for flight.” ” could be “.
Thanks to virtual reality goggles, they can get used to walking in the difficult light conditions of 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.
You’ll also need to familiarize yourself with new ships and their software, such as the Orion Capsule. In one of the simulators, sitting in the commander’s seat, you need 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 full-size samples.
Astronauts “do a lot of emergency evacuation training here,” tells AFP Debbie Korth, deputy director of the Orion Project, which she has worked on for more than a decade.
Across the space center, “people are excited,” she says.
For NASA, “I certainly believe it’s a new golden age” that’s dawning.