European astronauts practice moonwalks in anticipation of new lunar missions
Fifty years after the first manned mission to the Moon, ESA is training a new generation of astronauts to work on the lunar surface. Based on findings from NASA's Apollo missions, the new explorers are using simulated moonwalks in Lanzarote, Spain, to test a range of advanced electronic aids, new geological tools, and improved scientific protocols to make lunar excursions safer and more efficient.
Among the drawbacks of astronauts returning to the Moon after a hiatus of almost half a century is that not only do 21st century missions need to recreate Apollo capabilities using 21st century technology, but they also need to relearn and improve on many skills lost over two generations of remaining within near-Earth orbit. This is particularly important for European space programs, which have never before seriously considered a manned lunar landing.
To overcome this, ESA established its Pangea-X campaign that uses earthbound lunar-analog field tests similar to those used to train Apollo astronauts in the 1960s. According to the space agency, the purpose of the campaign is to combine space exploration, high-tech survey equipment, and geology. This is done by bringing together geologists and engineers in a volcanic area that stands in for the lunar surface.
Part of this program requires learning how to work in pressure suits similar to those worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. This allows engineers and would-be astronauts to test new ideas and prototypes in the confined movements of a spacesuit, like not being able to kneel or bend over as well as dealing with bellow joints and thick, pressurized gloves. However, using actual suits in the field isn't always practical.
"We do not have a lunar spacesuit for these tests, but after spending many hours training with NASA's spacesuits we are accustomed to the limitations of mobility," says ESA spacewalk instructor Hervé Stevenin. "We applied this knowledge – and our body memory – to testing the lunar tools."
ESA says that the minimal "spacesuits" worn by the simulated moonwalkers are equipped with live video cameras that provide mission control with 360-degree panoramas, close-ups and microscopic images. In addition, the controllers have an Electronic Field Book that allows them to call up relevant data and is described as an all-in-one, easy-to-use, plug-and-play device. In this way, astronauts can be paired with a trained geologist back on Earth or on a lunar-orbiting space station.
"The next generation of lunar explorers will be trained in relevant scientific disciplines, but there will always be more expertise on Earth," says Samuel Payler, research fellow at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany. "The challenge is to have this expertise transmitted to the astronauts during a moonwalk to make the best decisions based on science. Sharing data in real time, including images and video, is an essential part of this."