NASA’s exceptional mission to the Moon
NASA will launch a rocket – the most powerful in the world – that will propel a habitable capsule into orbit around the Moon before returning to Earth. As early as 2024, astronauts will board the spacecraft to make the same journey, and the following year (at the earliest), they will set foot on the Moon again.
“I’ve been working here for 37 years, and this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with.” Rick LaBrode is NASA’s flight director, and later this month, he will be in charge of a historic space mission: the first in the program to return Americans to the Moon.
Before takeoff, “I won’t be able to sleep much, that’s for sure,” he confides in front of the dozens of screens of the flight control room in Houston, Texas.
For this first 42-day test mission, Artemis 1, a dozen people will be in the famous “Mission Control Center” room, modernized for the occasion.
“This is all completely new. A brand-new rocket, a brand-new spacecraft, a brand-new control center,” summarizes Brian Perry, who will be at the console in charge of the trajectory right after launch.
“I can tell you my heart will go ‘bam bam, bam bam,’ but I’ll make sure I stay focused,” he says, patting his chest, even though he’s been on many space shuttle flights.
Beyond the control room, the entire Johnson Space Center in Houston is on Moon time.
A black curtain has been drawn in the middle of the vast pool, more than 12 m deep, where the astronaut train. On one side is still the replica of the International Space Station underwater. On the other, a lunar environment is gradually being created at the bottom of the tank, with gigantic rock models made by a company specializing in aquarium decorations.
“We started putting sand at the bottom of the pool only a few months ago. The big rocks came in two weeks ago,” said Lisa Shore, assistant manager of this Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). “Everything is still in development.”
In the water, astronauts can experience a sensation close to weightlessness. For lunar training, they are weighted, so they feel only one-sixth of their weight.
From a room above the pool, they are guided from a distance, with the four-second time lag they will experience on the Moon.
Six astronauts have already trained there, and six more are scheduled to follow by the end of September, donning Nasa’s new lunar suits for the first time.
“The golden age of this building was when we were still flying the shuttles and building the space station,” said John Haas, head of the NBL. At that time, 400 suit training were conducted per year, compared to about 150 today. But the Artemis program brings a new impetus.
At the time of AFP’s visit, engineers and divers were evaluating how to push a cart to the moon.
Training in the water can last up to six hours. “It’s like running a marathon, twice, but on your hands,” said Victor Glover, a NASA astronaut who returned last year from six months in space.
Today, he works in a building entirely dedicated to simulators. His role is to help “check the procedures and the equipment” so that when those who will go to the Moon (of which Mr. Glover could be one) are finally designated, they can be intensively prepared and be quickly “ready to go.”
Using virtual reality headsets, they can get used to walking in the challenging light conditions of the Moon’s the South Pole, where the Artemis missions will land. The Sun rises slightly above the horizon, constantly forming long, dark shadows.
They will also have to familiarize themselves with the new spacecraft and software, such as the Orion capsule. In one of the simulators, sitting in the commander’s seat, they have to use the joystick to dock with the future lunar space station, Gateway.
Elsewhere, a capsule replica 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,” says Debbie Korth, deputy project manager for Orion, which she has worked on for over a decade.
Throughout the space center, “people are excited,” she says.
For NASA, “I think it’s a new golden age” is beginning.