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All systems go in Houston as NASA prepares return to Moon

HOUSTON (AFP) – Rick LaBrode has worked at NASA for 37 years, but he said the American quest to return to the Moon is by far the crowning moment of his career.

LaBrode is the lead flight director for Artemis 1, set to take off later this month – the first time a capsule that can carry humans will be sent to the Moon since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

“This is more exciting than really anything I’ve ever been a part of,” LaBrode told journalists at the United States (US) space agency’s Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas.

The 60-year-old confided to AFP that the eve of the launch is likely to be a long night of anticipation – and little rest.

“I’m going to be so excited. I won’t be able to sleep too much, I’m sure of that,” he said, in front of Mission Control’s iconic giant bank of screens.

Artemis 1, an uncrewed test flight, will feature the first blastoff of the massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which will be the most powerful in the world when it goes into operation.

People look at a slide depicting the Artemis I launch and ascent at the Johnson Space centre in Houston. PHOTO: AFP

It will propel the Orion crew capsule into orbit around the Moon. The spacecraft will remain in space for 42 days before returning to Earth.

From 2024, astronauts will travel aboard Orion for the same trip, and the following year, at the earliest, Americans will once again step foot on the Moon.

For the duration of Artemis 1, a team of about a dozen NASA personnel will remain in Mission Control 24 hours a day. The centre has been renovated and updated for the occasion.

Teams have been rehearsing for this moment for three years.

“This is a whole new deal – a whole new rocket, a whole new spacecraft, a whole new control centre,” explained the flight dynamics officer Brian Perry, who will be in charge of Orion’s trajectory immediately following the launch.

“I can tell you, my heart is going to be tum tum, tum tum. But I’ll work hard to keep focussed,” Perry, who worked on numerous space shuttle flights over the years, told AFP, tapping his chest.

Beyond upgrades to Mission Control for the mission, the entire Johnson Space Center is a bit over the Moon about Artemis.

In the middle of the giant astronaut training tank – the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at more than 200 feet long, 100 feet wide and 40 feet deep – a black curtain has been erected.

On one side of the so-called Neutral Buoyancy Lab is a mockup of the International Space Station, submerged.

On the other, the lunar environment is gradually being recreated at the bottom of the pool, with giant model rocks made by a company specialising in aquarium decorations.

“It’s only been in the last few months that we started to put the sand on the bottom of the pool. We just got that large rock in two weeks ago,” said the lab’s deputy chief Lisa Shore.

“It’s all very new for us and very much in development.”

In the water, astronauts can experience a sensation that approaches weightlessness.

To train for eventual voyages to the Moon, simulations must replicate the Moon’s one-sixth gravity.

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