In Turin, visit the futuristic lunar space station

At the foot of the Alps, between the airport and Piedmont’s capital, Turin, the Po Valley suffocates in summer torpor. However, this difficult situation does not slow down the daily procession of 900 employees of Thales Alenia Space Group (TAS, 67% owned by French Thales and 33% by Italian group Leonardo) who gravitate here like a swarm of homing bees. . Engineers, programmers, analysts, welders, all these trades needed for space exploration and conquest are brought together in one dominant industrial site straight from the past.

“Turin was already a military site during the Roman Empire, smiles the site’s symbolic director Walter Cugno. In the 1960s, Fiat started its aviation operations there. Then we built our first satellite. And in 1992, we started. A with NASA program.” The links between TAS and the famous American organization are so privileged that, the signatory Cugno even had an asteroid named after him, eternal recognition for this dean of Star Wars. However, resting on its laurels is out of the question. The 21st century challenges are major, and Turin, which produced more than 50% of the International Space Station’s (ISS) pressure module, won the contracts.

At the historic site of Thales Alenia space, old buildings contain the first modules of future lunar orbital stations

At the historic site of Thales Alenia space, old buildings contain the first modules of future lunar orbital stations

Sebastien Pommier // L’Express

Lunar Getaway and the first module of Axiom Space

Behind the dilapidated buildings of this huge industrial complex built of sheets and bricks, where all the vegetation has been abandoned, the first modules of the future lunar space stations are already coming out of the ground. Because TAS won the beautiful piece of NASA’s Artemis program (launched by Donald Trump in 2017), which will mark the return of humans to a neighboring star. The first since the last Apollo mission in 1972 (17). Artemis will have three phases: a first uncrewed test flight, a second with astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft, and a final mission including a moon landing. “From 2024-2025, astronauts will be able to land on the moon or moor to the future space station on top of the Orion capsule”, says a brief from the Franco-Italian group.

Axiom is part of Space's future pressurized module.

Axiom is part of Space’s future pressurized module.

Sebastien Pommier // L’Express

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The station, called Lunar Gateway, will be like a little sister to the ISS, although it will be farther away and won’t accommodate long-term manned flights (four astronauts for a maximum of three months). It will be an orbital home port for the Moon to carry out experiments there and soon to begin its journey to Mars. At Gateway, we therefore find the main partner organizations of the ISS – NASA, of course, but also the European (ESA), Japanese (Jaxa) and Canadian (CSA) space agencies. And on behalf of ESA, Thales Alenia Space won the contract for the main habitable module (I-HAB, 327 million euros) and the one dedicated to communication and refueling (Esprit, 295 million euros). TAS has also been selected by American Northrop Grumman to provide the framework for the Housing and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module that will be attached to the Housing and Logistics Outpost.

Building on its long experience in pressurized modules, Thales Alenia Space is also pursuing another ambitious project, Axiom Space’s future private lunar orbital station. This start-up, the result of an XXL entrepreneurial project, already promises a bright future. Don’t imagine a hotel in space, after all the platform will make it possible to perform personal experiences. Yet the interior will be painted by French designer Philippe Starck, and we’re already expecting a certain Tom Cruise to film future episodes. impossible mission Which makes Thales engineers salivate. “Gateway and Axiom structures will be delivered between 2023-2024. For us, the moon is already tomorrow”, summarizes Walter Cugno, in no hurry to retire from business, who entered the company in 1975 and has long supported the ExoMars project.

“We are moving from an era of space conquest to a life in orbit”

A few steps away from his office, under the factory’s glass roof, cylindrical parts 3 to 4 meters in diameter are already being welded, checked, regulated, despite the headaches of the global economy. “Aluminum has increased by 70% in recent months. We have no price change clauses in our contracts. We take these costs out of our margins,” said Tiziano Pegorin, production manager. It will take its technicians about nine months to assemble Halo’s giant mechano. Meanwhile, to project themselves, Walter Cugno’s teams set up a life-size show apartment in the middle of a small room lined with stars. We see you there already.

The structure of this i-HAB is chiseled, polished and perfectly profiled. Designed to withstand cosmic rays and debris flows, this giant washing machine drum features four Doc (door) to connect other modules of the future station. Using a small ladder, you slide inside and you come to a large studio of 26 square meters, part of the floor of which is glazed. “The astronauts will store the technical equipment under their feet. In front of you, the kitchen area with its windows. You can see that we made a special effort on brightness”, underlined Flavio Bandini, product line manager, real estate agent converted to space.

Inside the i-HAB module

Inside the I-HAB module of the “Lunar Gateway”.

Sebastien Pommier // L’Express

Corresponding to the ISS’s now famous Cupola – this glass bubble made popular by Thomas Pesquet’s lens – the view of the galaxy is not just a luxury. “When we got Luca Parmitano [NDLR : astronaute italien]He asked us for two things: a bedroom and a window”, smiled Flavio Bandini. Of course there would be no real bed, only solid walls, removable, on which the astronauts could lean to support themselves. Rest, head up or head down, but nothing. Chances are left.

Thus, the straps installed throughout the cabin are all made by local subcontractor, Sabelt, which equips Ferrari cars with seat belts. A new paradigm that responds to many attentions. “We are moving from the age of space conquest to orbital life. So the missions will be longer and more regular in preparation for the great journey to Mars”, summarizes Franco Fenoglio, Director of Space Exploration at Thales.

“If you want to go to Mars, you have to manufacture in space.”

To measure the stake, you already have to come down to earth and plunge into the long corridor of a neighboring building where the laboratories follow each other in a row. Here a box reproduces the effect of weightlessness. There, a sealed chamber plunges an object to -100°C, as if it had arrived on the surface of the Moon. “Our challenge is to combine the constraints between them, but also with life in space”, summarizes Antonia Simone, head of this R&D unit. “To do this, we put people at the center of technology. For example, we are developing artificial intelligence [NDLR : façon Alexa de Google] to make life easier for the astronauts on board,” said robotics expert Alessandro Scarciglia.

In his laboratory, Thomas Fili tries to grow lettuce and potatoes under extreme conditions

In his laboratory, Thomas Fili tries to grow lettuce and potatoes under extreme conditions

Sebastien Pommier // L’Express

ofInterstellar A Alone on MarsThe fantasy of Hollywood screenwriters is not so far from reality. In his laboratory, Thomas Feeley, at the speed of a machine gun, grows lettuce and potatoes in a UV-light airlock. “Today, we are able to provide 20% of the food required for long-term manned flights. We can expect to go up to 70%. Because, to go to Mars, we need to produce in space”, summarizes. young engineer

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And in a closed and hostile environment, water is an important factor. “On the ISS we already recycle it at 98%. But to be self-sufficient, we’re testing a centrifuge that filters and recycles urine,” adds Thomas Fili, handing us two glass bottles with surprising labels. One has “Water for Astronauts” with an American flag, the second has “Water for Cosmonauts” with a Russian flag. Surprise! These original ISS collectibles just don’t taste the same. “See, the Americans are much better than the Russians,” the young man laughed somewhat sarcastically. Even in space, taste and color are not discussed.


Sebastian Pommier, Turin (Italy)


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