As NASA plans to return humans to the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis programme, the agency has already started preparing astronauts for the challenges that they will face on the lunar surface.
The training includes performing tasks underwater in especially built giant pools and using different analog environments to simulate lunar conditions.
As part of a test series occurring in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) at Johnson Space Center in Houston, astronauts in a demonstration version of the exploration spacesuit and engineers in “hard hat" dive equipment are simulating several different tasks crew could do on the surface of the Moon, NASA said.
“This early testing will help determine the best complement of facilities for hardware development and requirements for future Artemis training and missions," said Daren Welsh, extravehicular activity test lead for these Artemis preparation test runs.
“At the same time, we are going to be able to gather valuable feedback on spacewalk tools and procedures that will help inform some of the objectives for the missions."
The NBL is 202 ft in length, 102 ft in width and 40 ft in depth (20 ft above ground level and 20 ft below) and holds 6.2 million gallons of water.
Astronauts are practicing a variety of tasks, including picking up samples of lunar regolith, examining a lunar lander, and planting an American flag.
There are many fundamentals that the teams have to consider and work through, such as how crew might get up and down a ladder safely, how to swing a chisel safely, and how to conduct successful moonwalks in different lighting conditions than the Apollo-era moonwalks.
The tests will inform future mission planning, including how many spacewalks to conduct during a mission, how long they will be, and how far away from a lander the crew will travel.
While NASA has extensive experience preparing astronauts for spacewalks in microgravity like those to construct and maintain the International Space Station over the past 20 years, preparing for Moon missions comes with different challenges.
“We can evaluate tools in a lab or the rock yard, but you can learn so much when you put a pressurised spacesuit on and have to work within the limitations of its mobility," Welsh said.
“These NBL runs are so valuable for understanding the human performance component and ensuring our astronauts are as safe as possible."
In addition to testing in the NBL, teams also are using different analog environments to simulate lunar conditions.
Tests are occurring at Johnson’s rock yard, a large, outdoor test area which simulates general features of the lunar surface terrain, NASA said, adding that the rock yard testing is a critical analog environment for spacewalk tool development and operations.