Hours before the big leap: For the third time in his life, Thomas Pesquet is preparing to leap into the void of space, a “dream” but also an extraordinary physical test he will share with American Shane Kimbrough.
From 12:00 GMT and for more than six hours, the two astronauts will float in zero gravity, 400 kilometers above Earth, to be glued to the International Space Station to install a new solar panel. They will resume operations on Sunday for a second deployment, thus increasing the power of the vessel built in 1998.
This extra-vehicle outing (“EVA”) is technically unprecedented for the first time since her arrival at the ISS in late April. It promises to be “rather complicated,” said Pooja Jesrani, head of orbital evacuation at NASA, during a press briefing Monday.
– Million Dollar Appliances –
“The apprehension, it’s a year of work for hundreds of people, we don’t want to make a mistake and break equipment costing a million dollars,” said Thomas Pesquet in his journal board at France Inter.
The astronaut knows the terrain, having been surveyed twice with the same teammates during their previous mission in 2017. This time, the roles have been reversed: she will be “Eva 1”, Shane Kimbrough “Eva 2”.
The 43-year-old astronaut commented, “No. 1 is Big Boss. I’m not a little kid anymore.” His 54-year-old colleague tweeted, “I can’t wait for Thomas to be another great support in this role.”
Mechanics will share tasks during operation, carefully choreographed by NASA. Objective: To deploy solar panels as large as a football field at the end of the Mastodon, on the port side of the ISS.
The “new generation” panels, delivered by the carrier in compact form, are already attached to the exterior of the vessel. Thomas Pesquet would retrieve the 350-kilogram object, then, carried by a robotic arm, would walk alongside the station carrying it on his sidekick.
With their hands hanging by their feet, they will open the panel and its 19-metre-long shell.
– “tin box” –
The day will keep trying. “An EVA is like running 100 meters over the duration of a marathon,” Hervé Stevenin, in charge of training for these exits for the European Space Agency (ESA), told AFP.
“Working in a diving suit is extremely difficult. All senses are limited, you lack dexterity with gloves: Holding an instrument is like squeezing a tennis ball, hundreds of times for six hours,” describes the instructor.
Despite the limited field of vision, astronauts must have a permanent “awareness of their surroundings that goes beyond everyday life”.
Not to mention the inconvenience: With no preparation time, they end up trapped in their diving suits for up to ten hours, like in a “tin can”, with only a small pocket of water to drink.
There is no danger of them falling into the void, as “Triple Security”, including a cable connecting them to the station permanently, prevents the nightmares of the movie “Gravity” from happening in real life, reassures the expert. is.
On the other hand, troubling or dangerous events can also occur, such as the loss of the tightness of a diving suit in the event of a microscopic meteorite impact.
The cooling system can also flow into the ventilation system, as experienced by Italian Luca Parmitano in 2013.
“There was a water bubble stuck in the back of his head, he could no longer hear and he had to cut his way out. He could have drowned,” Hervé Stevenin says.
“You don’t feel like you’re constantly risking your life,” says Thomas Pesquet, for whom “EVAs” represent a “dream within a dream.” Although he was “not very proud” at first, he let go of his fingers from the ship.
“Everything else is fine, we think we’re stable, there’s a big ball rolling under our feet. On my first outing, Shane told me + look around + because we didn’t lift our noses off the handlebars. Now I’m going to try it”.