Only a few hours before the big jump. For the third time in his life, Thomas Pesquet is preparing to launch into the void of space, a “Dream” but also an extraordinary physical test that he will share with the American Shane Kimbrough.
Wednesday June 16 from 2 p.m. and for more than six hours, the two astronauts will float in zero gravity, 400 kilometers above the Earth, clinging to the International Space Station (ISS), to install a new solar panel. They will restart the operation on Sunday to deploy a second, and thus increase the power of the vessel built in 1998.
Rather complex output
This spacewalk, “EVA”, the first since their arrival in the ISS at the end of April, is technically unprecedented. It announces itself “Rather complex”, said Pooja Jesrani, head of orbital exits at NASA, Monday during a press briefing.
“There is apprehension, it is years of work for hundreds of people, we do not want to make a mistake and break equipment that cost a million dollars”, confided Thomas Pesquet in his logbook on France Inter.
The astronaut knows the terrain, surveyed twice during his previous mission in 2017, with the same teammate. This time, the roles are reversed: he will be “EVA 1”, Shane Kimbrough “EVA 2”. “No. 1 is the wholesale chef. Now I am no longer the little youngster ”, commented the 43-year-old astronaut. “I can’t wait for Thomas to be in this role and to be a good support”, tweeted his 54-year-old colleague.
The solar panels 🛰️ that we are going to install and deploy tomorrow! For the moment they are rolled up on themselves… https://t.co/KzltOLb9Tb
The mechanics will share the tasks during the operation, meticulously choreographed by NASA. Objective: to deploy the solar panels on the port side of the ISS, at the end of the mastodon as large as a football field.
The signs ” new generation “, delivered by freighter in compact form, have already been attached to the exterior of the vessel. Thomas Pesquet will retrieve the 350 kg object, then, moved by a robotic arm, will go along the Station to pass it to his sidekick. Hanging on the arm by the feet, they will unfold the panel and its 19 meters long.
Lack of dexterity and discomfort
The day will be trying. ” A “EVA” is like running a 100 meters over the duration of a marathon ”, explains Hervé Stevenin, in charge of training for these sorties for the European Space Agency (ESA). “Working in a diving suit is extremely difficult. All the senses are limited, we lack dexterity with gloves: holding a tool is like squeezing a tennis ball, hundreds of times for six hours ”, describes the instructor.
Despite a limited field of vision, astronauts must always have a “Awareness of their environment which goes beyond everyday life”. Not to mention the discomfort: with the preparation time, they remain stuck for ten hours in their diving suit, as in a “Tin can”, with only a small pocket of water to drink.
No danger of them falling into the void, since one “Triple security”, including a cable connecting them permanently to the Station, prevents the nightmarish scenario of the film Gravity to perform in real life, reassures the expert.
On the other hand, troublesome or even dangerous incidents can occur, such as the loss of tightness of the diving suit in the event of a micrometeorite impact. The cooling system can also flow into the ventilation system, as experienced by the Italian Luca Parmitano in 2013. “A water bubble stuck behind his head, he could no longer hear and had to cut short his exit. He could have drowned “, says Hervé Stevenin.
“You don’t feel like you’re constantly risking your life”, testifies Thomas Pesquet, for whom the “EVA” represent a “Dream within the dream”. Even if he was not “Not very proud” the first time he released his fingers from the ship. “The rest is fine, we have the impression of being fixed, of climbing with a large ball spinning under our feet. On my first outing, Shane told me “look around you” because we hadn’t lifted our nose off the handlebars. There I will try to do it. “