By launching an unmanned capsule into space, sending it around the moon and bringing it back to Earth in November, NASA demonstrated how it will once again transport astronauts to the lunar surface — a core goal of the Artemis program.
What remains to be seen is who will crew the first trips.
“Everybody in the astronaut office has the background, the basic training and the qualifications to go do that mission, so everyone is hoping that their name gets called,” astronaut Stan Love told VOA during an interview at Kennedy Space Center ahead of the Artemis 1 launch.
Love is among those being considered for a spot. Artemis 2, a manned mission to orbit but not land on the moon, could launch as early as 2024. Love said the Artemis crews will look different than those of the Apollo program during the 1960s and 1970s.
“We are going to broaden our demographics, so it won’t just be white guys landing on the moon.”
“We make our boss’ jobs actually challenging, we make his job hard because he's got to pick some of us,” says astronaut Victor Glover, who could make history as the first person of color to reach the moon.
The crew for Artemis 2 will be announced April 3, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who said the team will include three NASA astronauts and one member of the Canadian Space Agency.
“I think all of us are ready, trained and capable of making this mission a success,” Glover told VOA. “Just to be where we are now and be a part of this team is an honor.”
The initiative to ensure diversity in NASA’s Artemis program was outlined in the Biden administration’s $25 billion funding request to Congress for NASA for the fiscal year 2022, which includes the moon missions.
“Apollo had a sister, Artemis, and this is our generation, and I think this is a fantastic thing,” said Branelle Rodriguez, who works on the Orion capsule that will transport the astronauts in Artemis.
Ahead of the launch of Artemis 1, she expressed pride taking part in a historic project that will also bring the first woman to the moon.
“I think it’s important for all of us, whether it’s a man or a woman, I think it’s fantastic,” Rodriguez said. “I think as an agency, as a nation and as a world showing that we can explore as humans back to the surface of the moon is what we need to go off and show.”
Danielle Bell, a marketing and communications professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School who focuses on issues of diversity and inclusion, welcomes NASA’s initiative and said she hopes it is permanent.
“NASA has taken the step of naming the entire mission after the sister of Apollo, the Greek god, so that in and of itself is a wonderful symbol, [and a] signal when we think about diversity and inclusion,” Bell said.
“To do this once, would feel like performing,” she added. “When they are transformative and not performative, that happens when the organization lives their values from the inside out.”
Women make up one-third of the current group of 41 astronauts at NASA. Twelve are people of color. While 16 are experienced pilots, the rest are experts in fields such as geology, medicine and engineering, bringing professional diversity to the corps.
Bell said that makeup suggests that skin color or gender won't likely drive the decision on who goes first.
“What I can appreciate about this mission, is that it’s not just about diversity, it’s not just about representation,” Bell told VOA. “It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s more meaningful, it’s more impactful. You’ve got an entire pool that is of diverse backgrounds.”
The importance of the Artemis diversity initiative is underscored for Glover whenever he participates in outreach and education efforts for NASA.
“People keep asking me, ‘Is it meaningful to you that little Black kids look up to you and say they want to be like you?’ You know what? Let's be honest, I represent America. I'm a naval officer and I work for NASA.
"I represent America and little white kids, little Mexican kids, little Hispanic kids and little Iranian kids follow what we're doing because this,” he said, pointing to the iconic NASA patch on his blue flight suit “is maybe one of the most recognizable symbols in the universe. I think that that's really important and I take that very seriously.”
While Glover hopes to be picked for an upcoming Artemis mission to the moon, he said he will participate in the mammoth undertaking one way or another.
“If your name gets called or not, I’m going to be happy to still be a part of this team and help from the ground,” Glover told VOA.
“There won’t be any sense of disappointment,” said astronaut Love. “If I’m not on the rocket, I’m going to be in mission control talking to these crews. So, I will be supporting these missions no matter what my role.”