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In Houston, NASA is working to return to the moon

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“I’ve worked here for 37 years, and it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve ever been involved in.” Rick LaBrode is NASA’s flight director 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 celebrate the return of the Americans to the Moon.

The day before takeoff, “I won’t be able to sleep much, that’s for sure,” he told AFP, in front of the dozen 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 push 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, about ten people will be in the hall of the famous “Mission Control Center” at any time, modernized for the occasion.

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

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

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

– Lunar pool –

Beyond the control room, Houston’s entire Johnson Space Center has been set to lunar time.

In the center of the huge pool more than 12 meters deep where astronauts train, a black curtain has been drawn. On the one hand there is still the submerged replica of the International Space Station. On the other hand, a lunar environment is gradually created on the bottom of the tank, with gigantic rock models, made by a company specializing in aquarium decorations.

“We started putting sand on the bottom of the pool just 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 under development.”

In the 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 delay they will have to face on the Moon.

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

“The heyday of this building was when we were still piloting the shuttles and building the space station,” said John Haas, head of the NBL. At the time, 400 combined training sessions were conducted per year, compared to around 150 today. But the Artémis program brings new momentum.

At the time of the AFP’s visit, engineers and divers were considering how to push a cart to the moon.

– “New Golden Age” –

Water workouts can last up to six hours. “It’s like running a marathon, twice, but with your hands,” Victor Glover, a NASA astronaut who has been back in space for six months, told AFP.

Today he works in a building entirely dedicated to simulators. His role is to help “verify the procedures and the material”, so that when those who go to the Moon are finally chosen (of which Mr. Glover may be one), they can be intensely prepared and be quickly “ready to start”. “.

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 need to familiarize themselves with the new ships and their software, such as the Orion capsule. In one of the simulators, sitting 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 full-size trials.

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

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

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

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