NASA is on a mission to return to the moon

NASA is on a mission to return to the moon

(Houston) “I’ve been working here for 37 years. Rick LaProde is the flight director at NASA, and at the end of the month, a historic space flight will take place under his responsibility: the first project of the program that will mark the return of Americans to the moon.

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“I can’t sleep much, that’s for sure,” he told AFP in front of dozens of screens in the flight control room in Houston, Texas, the day before takeoff.

For the first time since the 1972 Apollo mission, a rocket – the world’s most powerful – will launch a habitable capsule into orbit around the moon before returning to Earth. From 2024, astronauts will make the same journey, and next year (at most), they will set foot on the moon again.

For this first 42-day test mission, known as Artemis 1, around ten people will be in the famous modernized “Mission Control Center” hall at all times.

Crews have been rehearsing the flight plan for three years.

“This is completely new. A 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 upon launch.

“I can tell you my heart goes ‘Bam Bam, Bam Bam,’ but I make sure I stay focused,” he says, tapping his chest, a participant in several space shuttles.

Lunar Pond

Beyond the control room, Moon Time is set throughout the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A black curtain has been placed in the middle of the huge swimming pool, more than 12 meters deep, where the astronauts train. On one side there is still a submerged replica of the International Space Station. On the other hand, a lunar environment is gradually created at the bottom of the basin, with gigantic models of rocks produced by a company specializing in aquatic decorations.

Photo by Marc Felix, Agence France-Presse

The training pool at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston.

“We started sanding the bottom of the pond only a few months ago. The big rocks arrived two weeks ago,” explained Lisa Shore, Vice President of the NBL. “Everything is still in development. »

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In water, astronauts can experience a sensation close to weightlessness. For lunar training, they feel only one-sixth the weight.

From a room above the pool, they are guided remotely, with a four-second time delay similar to what they encounter on the moon.

Six astronauts have already trained there, and six more are set to follow by the end of September, wearing NASA’s new lunar suits for the first time.

“The pinnacle of this building is when we’re still flying space shuttles and building the space station,” said John Haas, president of NBL. At that time, 400 joint exercises were conducted annually, and today about 150 are conducted. But the Artemis project brings new momentum.

At the time of AFP’s visit, engineers and divers were evaluating how to push a rover onto the moon.

“The New Golden Age”

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

Today, he works in a building devoted entirely to simulators. His job was to help “validate procedures and equipment” so that if the moon-goers (Mr. Glover could be one) were finally selected, they could be seriously prepared and “ready to go” quickly.

Thanks to virtual reality headsets, they’ll get used to walking in the difficult light conditions of the moon’s south pole, where the Artemis missions land. There, the sun rises very little above the horizon, constantly casting long, very black shadows.

Photo by Marc Felix, Agence France-Presse

A medium-fidelity Orion mock-up is on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

They should also be familiar with new ships and their software, such as the Orion capsule. In one of the simulators, the commander sits in the seat and is given a joystick to connect to the Gateway, the future lunar space station.

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Elsewhere, a replica of the four-passenger 9 cubic meter capsule is being used for full-scale rehearsals.

Astronauts “do a lot of emergency evacuation drills here,” says Debbie Korth, associate program manager for the Orion program, where she worked for more than a decade.

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

For NASA, I believe it is “surely, it’s a new golden age.”

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