If you’ve ever been on a tour of a cleanroom — a sterile environment where engineers build and test satellites and other spacecraft — you will know it’s a pretty surreal experience. You’re standing there, starring up at a rough and unfinished-looking object, seemingly wrapped in kitchen aluminium foil, with wires and solar panels sticking out at various angles and it’s tough imagining what the thing will actually do when it’s in an operational environment. The engineers tell you.
This towering object is an instrument of precision and beauty. It will observe our planet Earth and deliver valuable data on our changing environment, monitor the oceans or track migration and military movements. But it’s virtually impossible to truly get what that means. You’re unlikely to be one of the comparably few humans ever to see the thing in action, in situ. So imagine how surreal it was to tour a spacecraft, or as DW did this Tuesday, a set of European Service Modules (ESMs), via a shaky YouTube channel.
You’re not in the cleanroom but in front of a computer screen. And the tour is a series of pre-recorded and pre-scripted video statements with bad sound. It was white noise — static — for the first ten minutes. But we already know that the ESMs form an integral part of Orion, a human spacecraft that will fly astronauts to the moon and an orbiting lunar base called Gateway. We also know that Orion belongs to Artemis, NASA’s human spaceflight program that aims to get humans back to the moon by 2024. So, we had a head start.
Andreas Hammer, Airbus’s Head of Space Exploration, delivered opening remarks from a cleanroom in Bremen, where the event was meant to be held in person. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, that got nixed. So, there he was, all alone, dressed in a white lab coat and hair net.
Right off the bat, Hammer said attempts to send humans back to the moon started in Bremen, where those ESMs are being constructed. And the ESMs, said Hammer, are the Orion’s “powerhouse.” There are three ESMs so far. They will provide air, electricity and propulsion, thermal control and all the consumables for the astronauts, including oxygen and water. ESA has just commissioned a further three units from Airbus. Without the ESMs, there would be no human spaceflight with Orion, no mission. “Nothing in space is simple,” said Hammer’s colleague Didier Radola, who heads the Orion ESM program at Airbus, and as such, no one goes to space alone.
During the session, talk turned to the astronauts who would get to fly first on Orion. Walther Pelzer, Director General of the German Space Agency (DLR), spoke highly of Gerst’s chances: “We’re interested in having a European astronaut with a German passport among them,” said Pelzer. “But he should be experienced. He should have shown he’s a good leader, and Gerst showed he was an exceptional leader when he was commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and the mission didn’t go as planned.” Those comments seemed to ignore that a “she” or gender-neutral individual may possess those very same qualities, too.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle