Not Your Grandfather’s Moon Mission
NASA has picked the four astronauts who will fly to the moon next year—and this lineup looks different than the Apollo crews did.
If you asked Americans to name a space mission, any space mission, I suspect very few would pick Apollo 8. The 1968 mission, the first to circle the moon, gets overshadowed by Apollo 11 (“One small step for man”; you know the rest) and Apollo 13 (of Tom Hanks fame). The astronauts didn’t venture from their spaceship, nor did they touch the lunar surface. But in its own, quiet way, that mission was an existential milestone. Until that moment, with a few exceptions to low-Earth orbit, human beings carried out their existence on this planet. They inhabited “a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” as Carl Sagan would later say, just a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” And then, suddenly, wildly, three of them were headed toward another world.
Today, NASA announced a new crew of astronauts who will travel a similar cosmic path. The Apollo program ended in 1972, but a new, modern moon effort is under way: Artemis, named for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology. The space agency wants to dispatch human missions to the moon once again, with brand-new, 21st-century technology, and crews that reflect the population. The crew of Artemis 2—three NASA astronauts and one Canadian astronaut—will fly to the moon and back, as Apollo 8 once did, in a prelude to the landing mission, Artemis 3, later this decade. Sometime near the end of 2024 (or perhaps a bit later), Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and Jeremy Hansen are set to become the first humans in more than 50 years to circle our satellite.
The announcement is the latest sign that this ambitious new program is really, truly happening. Other details are getting crossed off the pre-trip checklist too. The giant rocket that will propel Artemis astronauts beyond Earth made its seamless inaugural flight in November. The rocket launched an uncrewed capsule into space, which also performed beautifully, circling the moon and surviving the fiery reentry through Earth’s atmosphere. Some elements are still in development—most notably the landing technology, courtesy of SpaceX—but NASA seems confident that they’ll get sorted out in time. Officials have vowed that the Artemis era will establish a more sustained presence on the moon than Apollo did, with a little space station in lunar orbit and modest outposts on the surface. That grand vision may or may not come to fruition, but regardless, the plan has to start with Artemis 2.
Apollo 8 laid the foundation for countless historic moments in American space exploration. The harrowing yet triumphant moon landing, during Apollo 11 in 1969, couldn’t have happened without it. Neither could the first steps on the lunar surface, or the time that astronauts drove a moon buggy across the gray landscape, or the delightful incident in which a geologist threw his hammer as hard as he could off into the distance, just to see how far it would go.
Artemis 2 will likely pave the way for similarly grand photo ops and goofy stunts. And it has already set a precedent that never materialized during the previous era of exploration. All 24 people who have flown to the moon so far were white and male. Koch will be the first woman, and Glover the first person of color, to make the trip.
It is a stark contrast to how NASA handled things back in the day. In 1962, Ed Dwight, a Black Air Force pilot, was in the running to become an astronaut; the military recommended him, but NASA didn’t accept him into the corps, and never gave an explanation. In the same decade, a NASA doctor gave a group of women the same physical and psychological evaluations that he had developed for the agency’s real astronaut corps, and although some women outperformed the men on the tests, the effort was scrapped.
NASA eventually sent women and people of color to space. Today the American astronaut corps remains mostly white and male, but the agency has tried to expand those ranks. Koch, who became an astronaut in 2013, has spent 328 days in space, living and working on the International Space Station, more than any other American woman. She was part of the first all-female spacewalk in history—which had to be rescheduled because NASA hadn’t stocked enough spacesuits in the astronauts’ size. Glover, who joined the same year as Koch, served as a pilot on the SpaceX capsule that ferried him and three other astronauts to the International Space Station in 2021. Last summer, he was one of the astronauts milling around at Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, waiting for the Artemis moon rocket, the Space Launch System, to make its debut. When I asked him about his dream Artemis assignment, he was diplomatic: “I don’t know,” he told me, “but if they want me on a mission, I’ll be ready when my time comes.”
It’s easy to forget how quickly this change happened—how recently a capsule full of white men launched toward the moon for the first time. Everyone who flew on Apollo 8 is still alive: Frank Borman, the commander, and Jim Lovell, the command-module pilot, are 95; Bill Anders, the lunar-module pilot, is 89. None of them ever landed on the moon; Lovell was supposed to touch the surface during the Apollo 13 mission, but an onboard oxygen tank famously ruptured, and NASA called the crew home. But some of the Artemis 2 crew may get that chance, if the program unfolds as NASA envisions, with a steady cadence of missions in the coming years. NASA has espoused big dreams of astronauts staying on the moon for a week or more, longer than the short visits of the Apollo astronauts. The Artemis astronauts have a chance of cementing an even more meaningful legacy than their predecessors; they might be the first people to really live on the surface of the moon.
For now, their job is to break in a new transportation system and come home to tell everyone all about it. More than half a century ago, on their way to the moon, the Apollo 8 crew pointed a camera back at Earth for a live television broadcast, eager to share the remarkable view of our home from afar. The video feed was grainy, but the first of its kind—there was the whole Earth, and the outlines of clouds and continents, all in real time. The Artemis 2 bunch may do the same, only with far better cameras. These days, we’re quite spoiled with ultra-high-definition views of Earth and other celestial bodies, thanks to satellites and spacecraft. But there’s something special about seeing our planet, ourselves, from such a distant, almost mystical, vantage point, when the view is guided by a human hand.