How NASA selects the next astronauts to walk on the Moon

During the Apollo program, the United States sent 12 astronauts to the Moon; all were male, and all were white. Drawn largely from the ranks of the United States Navy and Air Force, these Americans exemplified the nation’s self-proclaimed ideals of bravery and integrity, but also its prejudices. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, black Americans were particularly indifferent, challenging the value of the space program when racial equality on Earth was out of reach. The country’s space race rival, the Soviet Union, had sent a woman into space in 1963, but the United States didn’t follow suit until Sally Ride’s space shuttle flight in 1983, and the first African-American astronaut, Guion Bluford, would not take flight until that same year.

Today, about five decades after the last Apollo mission, NASA returns to the Moon with a mission beyond simple scientific exploration. Its Artemis program began last November with the launch of Artemis 1, which brought only mannequins into space. Artemis 2 will carry a crew of astronauts around the moon and back. Then Artemis 3 will bring humans to the lunar surface in 2025, if all goes as planned. Beyond that, NASA hopes to establish a permanent science base on the moon as well as a mini lunar-orbiting space station known as the Gateway.

“Fifty-five years ago, we were on the moon,” says NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “Now we come back with the first woman and the first person of color. »

NASA has yet to choose who these first Artemis astronauts will be, although it’s likely to be someone who’s been in space before and flown to the International Space Station (ISS) . While NASA announced a group of 18 astronauts in its “Artemis team” in 2020, the agency has since widened the pool, saying one of the 42 active astronauts is training for a possible future lunar mission. NASA uses the ISS as a training ground for future deep-space astronauts and conducts a series of exercises at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA is also looking beyond its traditional pool of fighter pilots. Any U.S. citizen with at least a master’s degree in a science or math field can now apply to become an astronaut, an initiative to improve diversity. The current applicant pool is nearly evenly split between men and women, and it is also ethnically diverse, closely matching the ethnic makeup of the United States.

But the number of non-white, non-male astronauts who have flown into space is still small. The agency released its first equity action plan last year, aimed at improving diversity across the agency by hiring contractors from underserved communities, improving access to subsidies and ensuring better monitoring of these efforts.

While such concrete initiatives are important for diversifying the space industry and opening up the astronaut pipeline, it’s also important for young future astronauts to see underrepresented people participate in high profile missions like flights to the ISS. , inspiring them to follow in their footsteps.

In 2019, NASA’s Christina Koch and Jessica Meir performed the first all-female spacewalk, spending more than seven hours outside the ISS. Then, last year, Jessica Watkins became the first black woman to serve on a long-duration mission on the station, returning from orbit in October. She hopes her mission will inspire other black girls and women to follow her path, just as she was inspired by her role models growing up. “I’m honored and grateful to have the opportunity to reciprocate,” she said. Shortly after, Nicole Mann became the first Indigenous woman in space and she is currently spending about six months stationed on the ISS. Like Watkins, she hopes her mission will serve as an inspiration to others who want to become an astronaut,

NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, one of 18 selected to ‘Team Artemis’ in 2020 NASA/Bill Ingalls

While diversity is an important difference between future moon missions and the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, the Artemis missions also take place in an entirely different political and technological environment. The Apollo program as envisioned by President John F. Kennedy was intended to demonstrate the strength of United States space capabilities during the Cold War. “It was not proposed by Kennedy for science, and it was not congressional funded for science,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “It was primarily a Cold War program. »

Since the Cold War is all about history, Artemis will focus on science and innovation, with crewed missions heading to places never before explored. The astronauts will travel to the polar regions of the Moon, which are home to what are known as the “permanently shadowed regions”. Because these regions are incredibly cold, scientists believe they could harbor deposits of water ice. They hope these resources could be mined for water which could then be turned into oxygen and then into rocket fuel, allowing for a permanent scientific base on the lunar surface.

Expanding the pool of eligible applicants to include math and science graduates underscores NASA’s new focus. Historically, it selected pilots and people with military backgrounds for astronaut training. Now “they’re selecting scientists and doctors, people who have a STEM background but aren’t necessarily engineers or test pilots,” says space analyst Laura Forczyk of Astralytical, a consulting firm. in aerospace.

Before joining NASA, astronaut Loral O’Hara was a research engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she worked on human-occupied submersibles, including Alvin who explored the wreck of the RMS Titanic . The lunar south pole will be dark, and his experience navigating the deep, dark ocean waters could help him navigate and work in shadowed craters on the moon. The agency also recently selected Deniz Burnham, who has experience as a field engineer on a remote oil rig, to train for the astronaut corps. His experience may prove useful as NASA works to extract key resources, like water, from the lunar surface.

Current astronauts are already preparing to set up a scientific base on the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program. “The focus is on the critical skills that are needed not only to save their lives, but also to get the science we need on the surface of the moon,” says David Armstrong, director of training at the NASA flight operations. The objectives of the first human missions to the surface include assessing risks and resources at the lunar south pole, where NASA plans to set up its Artemis base camp. To do this, astronauts who walk on the moon will need training in field geology, sample collection and the deployment of surface experiments.

NASA astronaut Victor Glover, one of 18 selected to ‘Team Artemis’ in 2020 NASA/Bill Ingalls

Artemis astronauts also practice Orion spacecraft piloting skills in simulators and dress in a huge pool to prepare for gravity and darkness at the lunar south pole. Practicing for a near-black spacewalk submerged in the pool, dubbed the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, is “totally nerve-wracking,” says Armstrong. But the astronauts “rely on their experiences and lean on each other, and on us at the control center to build that trust.”

Even though five decades separate the Artemis and Apollo programs, NASA astronauts revisit those early lunar missions for inspiration and insight into training and planning.

“We literally read the transcripts of what [Apollo 11 astronauts] Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were talking about coming down [on the moon] both in real time and in their debriefs,” says NASA astronaut Christina Koch.

Koch spent 328 days in space aboard the ISS, setting the record for the longest continuous time in space for a woman. Between the need for astronauts with long-term spaceflight experience and NASA’s call for a woman to be on the moon, Koch could very well be chosen for Artemis 3.

“To be here at a time when we’re chasing these huge questions and going in these bold new directions is awesome,” Koch says. “The fact that I can be a part of it is almost unbelievably incredible. »

For Koch, NASA’s commitment to diversity through the Artemis missions is paramount to the success of the agency and of humanity.

“We have to do it for everyone and by everyone,” she said. “If we don’t, we’re not really answering humanity’s call to explore, and that’s what we’re celebrating. »

Astronauts Artemis Moon NASA Outer Space Space Travel

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