Apr 4, 2023 - Science

A face for NASA's journey back to the Moon

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: NASA

NASA is making good on its promise to center diversity in its Artemis program with Monday's announcement of a new crew of four astronauts who will travel around the Moon and back to Earth as soon as 2024.

Why it matters: The faces of NASA's newest lunar ambitions — which include the space agency's first woman and first person of color to launch toward the Moon — highlight the differences between Artemis and Apollo.

  • "For Artemis to succeed, it has to maintain public support, and this is one way of doing it, giving a face to it," John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, tells Axios.

Driving the news: The Artemis II crew includes NASA astronauts Christina Hammock Koch, Victor Glover and Reid Wiseman and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, NASA announced Monday.

  • Koch and Glover will be the first woman and person of color, respectively, to launch toward the Moon in NASA history.
  • The mission also paves the way for Artemis III, which will be the first crewed lunar landing of the program and is expected to include the first woman and person of color to ever land on the Moon.

How it works: Artemis II, expected to launch as soon as November 2024, will take its crew of four on a slingshot journey around the Moon and then back to Earth.

  • It will mark the first crewed launch of the Space Launch System and Orion capsule, allowing NASA to test out many of the systems needed for a crewed landing on the Moon as soon as 2025.
  • NASA plans to use the Moon as a proving ground to one day get people to Mars.
  • "We need to celebrate this moment in human history because Artemis II is more than a mission to the Moon and back," Glover said during the announcement event. "It's more than a mission that has to happen before we send people to the surface of the Moon. It is the next step that gets humanity to Mars. ... And this crew will never forget that."

Flashback: Artemis II "really is reminiscent for me — of a certain age — of Apollo 8," Bill Nye, the CEO of the Planetary Society, tells Axios, referencing the 1968 mission that sent astronauts around the Moon before coming back to Earth — a precursor to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission.

  • "Apollo 8 changed the world. It changed the way everybody felt about being a living thing on a planet in the cosmic loneliness that is space."
  • That mission saw the astronauts aboard beam home the "Earthrise" photo, revealing the Earth rising above the surface of the Moon.

The big picture: The Apollo program was born out of a race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for geopolitical dominance that extended to the Moon.

  • Instead of framing Artemis as a race between nations, however, NASA sees the program today as an opportunity for collaboration, and the Artemis II crew is proof of that.
  • Hansen will be the first Canadian to fly a Moon mission in history, and his selection underlines the importance of the international community to the program. Artemis III will carry a non-American astronaut to the lunar surface as well.

Yes, but: International tensions are still brewing in space, and specifically on the Moon.

  • China and Russia have signed an agreement to build a research station on the Moon, and neither nation has signed on to NASA's Artemis Accords to help govern exploration of the Moon.
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