Just a few hours before the big jump: For the third time in his life, Frenchman Thomas Pesquet is preparing to blast off into the void of space, a “dream” but also an extraordinary physical test he will share with American Shane Kimbrae.
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From 12:00 GMT and for more than six hours, the two astronauts will float in zero gravity, 400 kilometers above Earth, clinging to the International Space Station, to install a new solar panel. They will resume operation on Sunday for a second deployment, thus increasing the strength of the ship built in 1998.
This out-of-vehicle (“EVA”) outing, the first since it arrived at the International Space Station at the end of April, is technically unprecedented. It promises to be “fairly complex,” Pooja Jasrani, head of NASA’s orbital exits, said Monday during a press conference.
“There are concerns, it’s years of work for hundreds of people, we don’t want to go wrong and break a million dollar equipment,” Thomas Pesquet said in his diary aboard France Inter radio.
The astronaut knows the terrain, and has been surveyed twice during his previous mission in 2017, with the same teammate. This time, the roles are reversed: it will be “EVA 1”, Shane Kimbrough will be “EVA 2”.
“No. 1 is the sentence chef. The 43-year-old astronaut commented. The 54-year-old colleague tweeted: ‘Can’t wait for Thomas to be in that role and to be such a good supporter.”
Mechanics will divide tasks during the process, which NASA has meticulously designed. The goal: to deploy solar panels on the port side of the International Space Station, at the end of the mastodon the size of a football field.
The “New Generation” panels, delivered by cargo ship in compact form, are already attached to the ship’s exterior. Thomas Bisket will retrieve the 350-kilogram object, then move by a robotic arm, and walk past the station to pass it on to his companion.
Hanging on the arm by the feet, they will open the board and its length is 19 meters.
Today will try. “The EVO is like running 100 meters during a marathon,” Hervé Stevinen, who is in charge of training for these flights, told AFP.
“Working in a wetsuit is very difficult. All the senses are limited, and we lack the dexterity in wearing gloves: holding the tool is like pressing a tennis ball, hundreds of times for six hours,” the coach describes.
Despite the limited field of view, astronauts must have “a constant awareness of their surroundings that goes beyond everyday life.”
Not to mention the annoyance: With preparation time, they’re stuck for ten hours in their wetsuit, like in a “tin can,” with a small pocket of water to drink.
There is no danger of falling into the void, because the “triple security”, including the cable that connects them permanently to the station, prevents the nightmarish scenario of the movie “Gravity” from happening in real life, reassures the expert.
On the other hand, annoying or even dangerous accidents can occur, such as losing the tightness of a wetsuit in the event of a small meteorite impact.
The cooling system can also flow into the ventilation system, as the Italian Luca Parmitano tested in 2013.
“A water bubble got stuck behind his head, he could no longer hear, and he had to cut his way out. He could have drowned,” Hervé Stephenen says.
“You do not have the impression that you are constantly risking your life,” testifies to Thomas Bisquet, for whom “Eva” represents “a dream within a dream.” Although he “wasn’t too proud” the first time he let his fingers off the ship.
“The rest is fine, we get the impression that we are steady, climbing into a big ball that rolls under our feet. On my first ride, Shane told me + look around + because we didn’t take our nose off the leash. There I will try to do it.”