NASA prepares to return to the Moon

NASA prepares to return to the Moon


“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 will be 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.&nbsp ;

The day before take-off, “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 room. flight control 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 into 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 set foot on the Moon again.

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

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

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

“I can say 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 nevertheless participated in many space shuttle flights.


Moon pool

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

In the middle of the huge swimming pool of more 12 meters deep where astronauts train, a black curtain has been drawn. 

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 basin, with gigantic rock models, 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 feeling close to weightlessness. For lunar training, they are weighted so that they only feel one-sixth of their weight. 

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

Six astronauts have already trained there, and six more are to follow by the end of September, donning NASA's new moonsuits 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 trainings were conducted per year, compared to around 150 today. But the Artemis program brings new momentum.

At the time of the AFP visit, engineers and divers were evaluating how to push a cart on the Moon.

< strong>“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 last year, told AFP. 

< p>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 casting long, very dark shadows. 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 been working for more than ten years.

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

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