HOUSTON — For the first time in more than half a century, NASA has named a crew of astronauts heading to the moon.
Humans have not ventured more than a few hundred miles from the planet since Apollo 17, NASA’s last lunar mission, returned in 1972. After the Artemis experiment on the moon, NASA hopes chart a course to put humans on Mars, while scientists expect to use what’s there to answer questions about the formation of the solar system.
Astronauts in 2023 are very different from when the United States was in a race to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. During the Apollo program, 24 astronauts flew to the moon and 12 of them walked on the surface. All were American. All were white men, many of whom were test pilots.
This time, the body of astronauts reflects a much broader section of society.
They are Reid Wiseman, the mission commander; Victor Glover, the pilot; Christina Koch, mission specialist; and, Jeremy Hansen, also Mission Specialist. The first three are NASA astronauts, while Mr. Hansen is a member of the Canadian Space Agency.
“When we were selecting astronauts back then,” Mr. Glover said in an interview, “we intended to select the same person, just multiple copies.”
Ms. Koch will be the first woman to venture beyond low Earth orbit, and Mr. Hansen, as a Canadian, the first non-American to travel that far.
“So, am I excited? Ms. Koch said during a crew unveiling event at Ellington Field, a small airport used by NASA for astronaut training. “Absolutely. But my real question is: are you excited?
The gathered crowd cheered in response.
The mission is a major step in NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon’s surface to explore the cold regions near the moon’s south pole. Water ice found in deep, dark craters there could provide water and oxygen for future astronauts as well as fuel for missions deeper in space.
“Together we go – to the Moon, to Mars and beyond,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.
But the four astronauts aboard this next mission, Artemis II, will not land on the Moon.
Instead, travelers will take a 10-day trip that circles the moon and back to Earth. It is currently planned for the end of next year.
“It’s an exciting time for the people of Artemis, there’s no doubt about it,” Harrison Schmitt, the last surviving Apollo 17 astronaut, said in an interview. He added that many people haven’t “completely realized that we’re about three generations away from any experience with humans in deep space, and that’s probably the most important part of the mission.”
Dr Schmitt, who is also a former US senator from New Mexico, said he was not necessarily surprised it took so long. “I would say I’m disappointed,” he said. “A lot of things came together to stop the Apollo program and keep us from going back for quite a while.”
Mr. Hansen noted that the United States could have undertaken the Artemis missions on its own, but instead chose to set up international collaboration with Canada and the European Space Agency. This agreement reserved a seat for a Canadian astronaut on Artemis II. “All of Canada is grateful for this global spirit and leadership,” said Mr. Hansen.
Mr Glover, who was the first black man to serve on the International Space Station crew, said diversity was “an important goal of the agency and our partners”.
“But it was also going to happen organically because of the body we have that represents America so well,” he said.
As the name of the mission suggests, Artemis II will be the second in NASA’s Artemis program. Artemis I was launched last November as an uncrewed test of the Space Launch System, NASA’s giant new rocket and the Orion astronaut capsule. The Orion spacecraft spent two weeks orbiting the Moon before returning to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific.
After years of delays – the rocket’s development took longer than originally planned – the Artemis I mission went smoothly for the most part, although some problems did occur. Orion’s heat shield protected the spacecraft during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, but it detached more than expected.
Artemis II, with four astronauts on board, will allow a full check of Orion’s life support systems. Then NASA officials will feel more confident to take on the longer and more complex Artemis III mission, which will include two astronauts landing near the South Pole.
Mr. Wiseman, Mr. Glover and Ms. Koch all said they were not disappointed that being part of the Artemis II crew ruled out the possibility of walking on the moon during Artemis III.
“It’s probably going to sound cliché,” Mr. Wiseman said, “but just to fly on one of these missions is a huge thing. It’s fantastic. I like the idea of going beyond that. from the moon.
He added: “Watching our fellow astronauts walk on the moon will be a success for us.”
After a long afternoon of interviews with reporters, the four astronauts departed Johnson Space Center, accompanied by a police escort, for NRG Stadium in Houston to watch the NCAA men’s basketball championship game. between the University of Connecticut and San Diego State University.
NASA is currently aiming for that first moon landing to occur in late 2025, but NASA’s Inspector General has predicted the mission will slip to 2026 or later. The Artemis III mission requires the use of Starship – the giant spacecraft developed by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company – to take the two astronauts from a distant lunar orbit to the surface. Starship’s first test launch into space could take off in the coming weeks.
In the 1960s, the space race mirrored geopolitical contests between the United States and the Soviet Union. Once the race was won, interest in the moon from the public, politicians and even NASA faded.
There are also geopolitical echoes this time around. China also aims to send astronauts to the moon in the coming years. But it’s not just governments that are aiming for the moon now.
Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, has purchased a voyage on Starship that would loop around the moon similar to the trajectory that Artemis II will take. Dennis Tito, an entrepreneur who was the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station in 2001, and his wife, Akiko, have booked seats for a separate spacecraft trip around the moon.
Five decades ago, it would have been like a billionaire buying a Saturn V, the rocket that launched Apollo astronauts to the Moon.
Now, it seems almost inevitable that tourist footprints will criss-cross the lunar surface for years to come.
In an interview, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who retired in 2013 after three space trips, compared space travel to the early days of aviation. The wonky contraption the Wright brothers built in 1903 flew, but barely. But progress has been rapid. The first flight for KLM, the Dutch airline, dates back to 1920.
“Seventeen years from the Wright Brothers to a profitable airline that still exists,” Mr Hadfield said.
He added that the innovation has significantly reduced the cost of leaving Earth.
“You can see the cost is going to continue to come down as the vehicles become more proven, and that’s going to increase access and opportunity,” Hadfield said.
For Artemis II astronauts, Dr. Schmitt offered some simple advice: “Just enjoy it,” he said.
Vjosa Isai And jesus jimenez contributed report.