Time was, there were 24 living astronauts who could boast of having visited the moon. The years and mortality have taken their toll, and half a century on, that rarefied fraternity has dwindled to 10 very old men. Today, however, NASA took a big step toward adding to their ranks, announcing the names of the four astronauts who will fly around the far side of the moon on the Artemis II mission scheduled for launch sometime in November 2024.
The crew is made up of three Americans and one Canadian astronaut, and includes the first woman and first person of color to visit the moon. They will fly a 10-day journey that will swing them once around the far side of the moon, taking them farther into space than any astronauts have ever traveled before. The current distance record is held by the crew of Apollo 13, who reached a distance of 401,056 km (249,205 mi.) from Earth during the one swing their crippled spacecraft made around the lunar far side in April 1970.
Artemis II’s 10-day mission follows the successful 25-day, uncrewed lunar mission of Artemis I, which launched on Nov. 16, 2022, and proved the mettle of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) moon rocket, and the Orion spacecraft. Most dramatically, the Artemis I mission successfully tested the ability of Orion’s heat shield to withstand the blistering 2,760º C (5,000º F) heat of reentry through Earth’s atmosphere. The Artemis II crew will rely on that protection at the end of their mission when they slam into the atmosphere at a translunar speed of 40,200 km/h (25,000 mph). If all goes as planned on Artemis II, Artemis III will return astronauts to the lunar surface perhaps as early as 2026.
But that’s for later. Today, at an event at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA revealed the crew that will barnstorm the moon, sending humans to the lunar vicinity for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
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“The largest most powerful rocket in the world is going to propel them onward and upward into the heavens and then to the moon,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, in a pre-announcement address. Then, with phrasing borrowed from President John Kennedy’s promise to land astronauts on the moon before the end of the 1960s, and with a nod to today’s international collaboration that has seen 15 countries work together to build and maintain the International Space Station (ISS), and will see a citizen of Canada become the first non-U.S. citizen to make a lunar journey, Nelson added: “We choose to go back to the moon and then on to Mars and we’re going to do it together. Because in the 21st century, NASA explores the cosmos with international partners.”
The crew chosen to make this first lunar trip in more than two generations is a considerable one. It includes:
A mission specialist for Artemis II and a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., Koch is an electrical engineer who began her space career at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 2001. Selected as an astronaut in 2013, she launched on her first journey to space in 2019, spending 328 days aboard the ISS, marking the longest continuous space flight by a woman. Koch participated in half a dozen spacewalks, three of which were the first all-female spacewalks.
“And as the only professional engineer in the crew,” said Joe Acaba, head of the astronaut office, during the announcement of Koch’s selection, “I know who Mission Control will be calling on when it’s time to fix something on board.
Also serving as mission specialist for Artemis II, Hansen, hailing from London, Ontario, is a tactical fighter pilot who graduated in 1999 from the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. He was selected by the Canadian Space Agency as an astronaut in 2009 and has had a long wait to be tapped to fly. Artemis II will mark his first mission to space, and at the announcement event this morning, he quickly took the opportunity to thank the people who made the opportunity possible for him.
“It is not lost on any of us that the United States could choose to go back to the moon by themselves,” he said. “But America has made a very deliberate choice over decades to curate a global team. And that in my definition is true leadership. A Canadian is going to the moon. That makes me smile when I say that.”
Mission pilot for Artemis II, Glover, of Pomona, Calif., is a Naval flier and test pilot, who flew missions off the USS John F. Kennedy in support of the war in Iraq. Selected as an astronaut in 2013, he launched to the ISS in November 2020, spending 168 days aboard and participating in four spacewalks. Glover will be the first person of color to travel to the moon, though he did not take note of that historic fact in his remarks today. Instead, he applauded the work of the generations of astronauts—at one time all white—who preceded him into space.
“Human spaceflight is like a relay race,” he said, “and that baton has been passed from generation to generation and from crew member to crew member, from the Mercury Gemini, Apollo, Apollo-Soyuz, Skylab, Mir, the shuttle, the International Space Station, commercial crew, and now the Artemis missions. When we have the privilege of having that baton, we’re going to do our best to run a good race to make you proud.”
Commander of the Artemis II mission, Wiseman, a Baltimore native, received a Masters degree in systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. He was commissioned in the Navy through the Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1997 and flew combat missions in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Selected as an astronaut in 2009, he spent 165 days aboard the ISS in 2014 and conducted two spacewalks. The first person to command a mission to the moon since the late Gene Cernan in 1972, Wiseman had few words to say to the assembled crowd when that honor was announced this morning, simply commenting, “It is great to see this diverse international group. Awesome to be here with you guys.”
There might be less of the once-voluble Cernan and more of the taciturn Neil Armstrong in Wiseman—and if so, that is not a bad legacy. The commander of Apollo 11 and the first man on the moon, Armstrong knew a thing or two about how to lead a crew on a historic and perilous mission. That burden will fall to Wiseman now. And as for the joy of the experience—the sheer wonder of flying out to the moon and seeing it up close for the first time in so many decades? It was left to Koch to give voice to that.
“My fellow astronauts know that one of the questions we get all the time is, ‘Are you excited?’” she said. “We’re going to hear the words ‘Go for launch’ on top of the most powerful rocket NASA’s ever made and we’re going to ride that rocket for eight minutes into Earth orbit. We’re going to stay in an amazing high orbit, reaching a peak of tens of thousands of miles while we test out all the systems on Orion. And then if everything looks good, we’re heading to the moon. It will be a four day journey, continuing to test out every bit of Orion, going around the far side of the moon before heading home, going through the Earth’s atmosphere at over 25,000 miles per hour and splashing down in the Pacific. So am I excited?” she asked in rhetorical summation. “Absolutely.”
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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at firstname.lastname@example.org