Nearly 50 years have passed since we last landed on the moon, when the three-person crew of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission touched down near the edge of an ancient lava sea called Mare Serenitatis.
Now, the space agency is again bound for the lunar surface, revving up a program called Artemis that could send humans back to the moon within this decade. This time, though, it won’t be only men making the journey: NASA promises that the first woman to press her boots into the razor-sharp moondust will be on the inaugural Artemis flight to the surface.
Today, the agency finally revealed which of its 47 active astronauts have been assigned to Artemis, to train for humanity’s historic return to the moon.
“Our goal is to go to the moon sustainably, to learn how to live and work on another world,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a meeting of the National Space Council, announcing the names of the 18 astronauts selected for training.
Sending humans on a round-trip journey to the surface of another world is perhaps the ultimate achievement for a space program. But those trips are treacherous, and completing them safely takes years of training—which is why NASA’s astronauts are starting to prepare for a possible lunar assignment.
“Spaceflight is not for the impatient. It’s dangerous, it’s very complicated,” says NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, a Navy test pilot and combat veteran who will train for Artemis. “We have a group of people that are working together, not only in the United States, but really in the international community that are going to come together to make this successful.”
None of the 18 astronauts has been assigned to a specific Artemis mission yet. NASA says that more astronauts, including some from international partners, will be added in the future. But this group is the first to begin preparing for NASA’s 21st-century moon missions.
Of the 18, nine are women—and one of them might well be the first to walk on the moon. Half the group are experienced fliers, such as Christina Koch, who just set the record for the longest-duration spaceflight for a woman, and Victor Glover and Kate Rubins, who are currently aboard the International Space Station. The rest are rookies, drawn mostly from the astronaut classes of 2013 and 2017.
“As I think about the Artemis program, I think, like anybody, the little kid inside of me just gets super excited,” says NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, an Army combat veteran and special forces doctor who’s on the Artemis roster. “As an American, as a human being, I just get excited about it.”
Fly me to the moon
A world of its own, the moon is steeped in mystery and mythology, and our forays into its neighborhood have been captivating—if harrowing—demonstrations of human capability.
Those journeys have also put our planet into context, exemplified by the iconic image “Earthrise.” Snapped by the Apollo 8 crew on Christmas Eve 1968 as they swung around the moon, the photo captures our multicolored planet soaring above the drab, cratered horizon. For the first time, humans viewed Earth from far enough away to grasp the vast cosmic realm in which our planet exists, and the fragility of our watery little world. The first crewed mission in the Artemis program, called Artemis II, is designed as a similar journey—looping around the moon and flying back, perhaps as early as 2023.
“If I can be a part of these missions in any capacity, it will truly be a dream come true,” says NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, who’s training for Artemis and has already logged more than 200 days in space aboard the International Space Station. “There’s so much to go explore with the Artemis program. We’ll be going to new sites; we have a wealth of new hypotheses and scientific experiments that will be conducted.”
But getting to the moon—and more importantly, returning to Earth—is tough. Pulling into lunar orbit involves a delicate, precisely executed shift in gravitational allegiance. Landing on the moon—a feat that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin very nearly failed on July 20, 1969—is even more risky. And finally, blasting off from the lunar surface, rendezvousing with another spacecraft, and then heading home requires similar tricky maneuvers performed in reverse.
But NASA’s astronauts aren’t just up for the challenge—they’re eager for it.
When Meir was asked in first grade to draw her dream job, she says, “I distinctly remember drawing a picture of an astronaut standing next to the flag, the American flag on the surface of the moon. It wasn’t just me in space; it was actually me standing on the surface of the moon. So I think for me, that has always been this dream mission—this driving exploration and curiosity.”
Returning to stay
Over the past couple of years, NASA’s Artemis program has been slowly gaining momentum. Initially conceived as a sister to the Apollo program, Artemis—in its most basic form—will replicate the sequence of missions that sent astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. If Artemis II successfully returns from lunar orbit, NASA could launch the moon-landing Artemis III soon after, perhaps as early as 2024—although that mission could be delayed if the project continues to experience schedule slowdowns and cost overruns.
As envisioned, Artemis will use NASA’s massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion space capsule to send astronauts into lunar orbit. Later, during Artemis III, Orion will dock with a privately designed and developed vehicle that will ferry the crew to the surface, perhaps to a location near the moon’s icy south pole.
But Artemis is ambitious on multiple levels. If fully realized, the program would include the construction of a moon-orbiting space outpost called Gateway. This small station could be used as a waypoint for astronauts going to and from the lunar surface. Eventually, it could even support missions farther into the solar system.
NASA plans to work with international partners to establish a long-term presence on the moon and hopes its foreign partners will agree to a set of principles laid out in a document called the Artemis Accords. These include commitments to use the moon for peaceful purposes, to cooperate in the case of emergencies, to share knowledge and scientific data, and to preserve sites of historical interest such as where Apollo 11 touched down.
Against a backdrop of shifting political leadership, uncertain budgets, an ongoing global pandemic, and repeated delays with both SLS and Orion, it’s not clear that Artemis will proceed on time.
“It is a very expensive endeavor,” Rubio says. “But I think it's been proven time and time again that when we do hard things, and we challenge ourselves as humanity to take on big challenges, it brings us together. And it pushes us to develop new technologies, new ideas.”
A lunar perspective
The science goals for Artemis III, laid out this week, include collecting more moon rocks and returning them to Earth. The missions will also study the history of asteroid impacts on the Earth and moon, and search for compounds buried beneath the surface, including water ice. Eventually, NASA hopes to harvest ice on the moon that could be used to manufacture rocket fuel and run life support systems.
Though all the astronauts who spoke with National Geographic emphasized that successfully completing a lunar mission would be their first priority, they also said they’d like to have a little fun up there if they’re lucky enough to go.
“I’d definitely want to jump—you know, jump as high as you can,” Mann says. “God forbid they give us some sort of rover,” Rubio adds. ”As important as the science is, I think every one of us would want to do a doughnut on the moon.”
Meir says she would drink in the beauty and profundity of seeing Earth from the lunar surface. “I wish so badly that I could bring all the eyes of all the humans on the planet to space with me to appreciate this view that we have,” she says. “The image of Earth from the International Space Station was so powerful for me in understanding the fragility, the beauty of our planet, how we need to protect it, how interconnected we all are.”
For now, though, the Artemis astronauts are focused on preparing to take humanity’s next bold step into space. And maybe, like Mann and her eight-year-old son, they’re doing a little bit of moon-gazing as well.
“We always sit outside, and we love to look at the stars and look at the moon—but now I think both of us look at it with a little different light in our eyes, and a little different twinkle,” she says. “Hopefully someday, he'll be able to watch Mom fly by and walk on the moon.”
NASA's Artemis Astronauts:
Joe Acaba (2004 Astronaut Class, 306 days in space)
Kayla Barron (2017 Astronaut Class)
Raja Chari (2017 Astronaut Class)
Matthew Dominick (2017 Astronaut Class)
Victor Glover (2013 Astronaut Class, currently aboard the ISS)
Woody Hoburg (2017 Astronaut Class)
Jonny Kim (2017 Astronaut Class)
Christina Koch (2013 Astronaut Class, 328 days in space)
Kjell Lindgren (2009 Astronaut Class, 141 days in space)
Nicole Mann (2013 Astronaut Class)
Anne McClain (2013 Astronaut Class, 204 days in space)
Jessica Meir (2013 Astronaut Class, 205 days in space)
Jasmin Moghbeli (2017 Astronaut Class)
Kate Rubins (2009 Astronaut Class, currently aboard the ISS)
Frank Rubio (2017 Astronaut Class)
Scott Tingle (2009 Astronaut Class, 168 days in space)
Jessica Watkins (2017 Astronaut Class)
Stephanie Wilson (1996 Astronaut Class, 43 days in space)