How NASA Selects the Next Astronauts to Walk on the Moon | Sciences

NASA astronaut launch and Artemis

NASA has 42 current astronauts to choose from for a potential mission to the moon.
Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz/NASA/Bill Ingalls

During the Apollo program, the United States sent 12 astronauts to the moon; They are all men and they are all white. These Americans, largely drawn from the ranks of the US Navy and Air Force, exemplify the nation’s ideals of courage and integrity, but also its prejudices. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, black Americans were particularly unconcerned, questioning the value of the space program when racial equality on Earth was so far out of reach. The country’s space race rival, the Soviet Union, sent a woman into space in 1963, but the United States didn’t follow suit until the flight of space shuttle Sally Ride in 1983, and the first African-American astronaut, Guion Bluford, didn’t make the flight until the same year. .

Now, nearly five decades after the last Apollo mission, NASA is returning to the moon on a mission that goes beyond just scientific exploration. Its Artemis program began last November with the launch of Artemis 1, which only brought 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. Furthermore, NASA hopes to establish a permanent science base on the Moon along with a small space station in lunar orbit known as Gateway.

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

NASA hasn’t chosen who these first Artemis astronauts will be yet, though it’s likely someone who has already been to space and traveled to the International Space Station (ISS). While NASA announced a group of 18 astronauts for “Team Artemis” in 2020, the agency has since expanded the group, saying any of the 42 active astronauts are training for a possible future lunar mission. NASA uses the International Space Station as a training ground for future deep space astronauts and is conducting a series of exercises at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA is also looking beyond its traditional group of fighter pilots. Any US citizen with at least a master’s degree in a science or math field is now eligible to apply to become an astronaut, a move to improve diversity. The current pool of candidates is roughly evenly divided between men and women, and is also racially diverse, closely matching the racial makeup of the United States.

But the number of non-white, non-male astronauts who have traveled to space remains low. The agency released its first Equity Action Plan last year, with the goal of improving diversity across the agency by hiring contractors from disadvantaged communities, enhancing access to grants and better tracking these efforts.

While such concrete initiatives are important for diversifying the space industry and opening up the astronaut pipeline, it is also important for young astronauts of the future to see underrepresented people on high-profile missions such as flights to the International Space Station, inspiring them to follow in their footsteps.

In 2019, NASA’s Christina Koch and Jessica Meir took the first women’s spacewalk, spending more than seven hours outside the International Space Station. 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 am so honored and grateful to have the opportunity to give back,” she says. Soon after, Nicole Mann became the first indigenous woman in space, and currently spends nearly six months stationed on the International Space Station. Like Watkins, she hopes her mission will inspire others who want to become an astronaut, engineer or scientist.

Astronaut Jessica Watkins

NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, one of 18 individuals named to “Team Artemis” in 2020

NASA/Bill Ingalls

While diversity is one important difference between the upcoming lunar missions and the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, the Artemis missions also take place in a very different political and technological environment. The Apollo program, as envisioned by President John F. Kennedy, was intended to demonstrate the strength of the United States’ space capabilities in the Cold War. “It was not proposed by Kennedy for science, and Congress did not fund it for science,” says Tessel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “It was basically a Cold War program.”

Since the Cold War is a matter of history, Artemis will focus on science and innovation, with manned missions heading to previously unexplored places. Astronauts will travel to the moon’s polar regions, home to so-called “permanently shadowed regions.” Because these areas are so cold, scientists think they could contain water ice deposits. They hope that these resources can be extracted for water that can then be converted into oxygen, and then rocket fuel, which would enable the creation of a permanent science base on the moon.

Expanding the pool of eligible candidates to include math and science graduates underscores NASA’s new focus. Historically, pilots with a military background were chosen to train astronauts. “They’re now choosing scientists and doctors, people who have a STEM background but who aren’t necessarily engineers or test pilots,” says space analyst Laura Forczyk of Astralytical, an aerospace consulting firm.

Before coming to NASA, astronaut Laurel O’Hara was a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she worked on human-operated submarines, including Alvinwhich became famous for exploring the wreck of the RMS Titanic. The moon’s south pole will be dark, and her experience navigating deep, dark ocean waters may help her navigate and work in the shadowed craters of the moon. The agency also recently selected Denise Burnham, who has experience as a field engineer on a remote oil platform, to train the astronaut corps. Its experience could prove useful as NASA works to extract key resources – such as water – from the lunar surface.

Existing astronauts are already preparing to establish a science base on the moon as part of the Artemis program. “The focus is on the basic skills needed to not only save lives, but also to get the science we need on the moon,” says David Armstrong, chief training officer for NASA’s Flight Operations Department. Goals for early human missions to the surface include assessing risks and resources at the lunar south pole, where NASA plans to establish the Artemis base camp. To do this, astronauts walking on the surface of the moon will need to train in field geology, collect samples and deploy experiments to the surface.

Astronaut Victor Glover

NASA astronaut Victor Glover, one of 18 individuals named to “Team Artemis” in 2020

NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Artemis astronauts also practice piloting skills for the Orion spacecraft in simulators and fit into a huge pool to prepare for the gravity and darkness of the Moon’s south pole. Armstrong says practicing a near-black spacewalk immersed in the pool, dubbed the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, is “absolutely unnerving.” But the astronauts “rely on their experiences and depend on each other, and so are we at the control center to build that trust.”

Although five decades separate the Artemis and Apollo programs, NASA astronauts are revisiting early lunar missions for inspiration and insight into training and planning.

We literally read texts [Apollo 11 astronauts] Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were chatting it up while they got off [on the moon]NASA astronaut Christina Koch says.

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

“To be here at a time when we’re pursuing these huge questions and going in these bold new directions is wonderful,” says Koch. “The fact that I might be a part of it is almost unfathomably amazing.”

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

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

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