During the Apollo program, the United States sent 12 astronauts to the moon; all of them were men, and all of them were white. Pulled largely from the ranks of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, these Americans exemplified the nation’s self-drawn ideals of bravery and integrity, but also its biases. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, Black Americans were notably uninterested, disputing the space program’s value when racial equality on Earth was out of reach. The country’s space race rival, the Soviet Union, had sent a woman to space in 1963, but the U.S. wouldn’t follow suit until Sally Ride’s space shuttle flight in 1983, and the first African American astronaut, Guion Bluford, wouldn’t take flight until that same year.
Now, roughly five decades after the last Apollo mission, NASA is returning to the moon with a mission beyond just scientific exploration. Its Artemis program began this past November with the launch of Artemis 1, which brought only 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. Beyond that, NASA hopes to establish a permanent science base on the moon along with a mini 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 going back with the first woman and first person of color.”
NASA hasn’t picked who those first Artemis astronauts will be yet, although it will likely be someone who has already been to space and has flown to the International Space Station (ISS). While NASA announced a group of 18 astronauts to its “Artemis Team” back in 2020, the agency has since broadened the pool, saying that any one of the 42 active astronauts are training for a possible future lunar assignment. NASA is using the ISS as a training ground for future deep-space astronauts and is conducting a series of exercises at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA is also looking beyond its traditional pool of fighter pilots. Any U.S. 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 candidate pool is almost evenly split between men and women, and it’s ethnically diverse as well, closely matching the ethnic makeup of the U.S.
But the number of non-white and non-male astronauts who have flown to space is still low. The agency released its first Equity Action Plan last year, aiming to improve diversity throughout the agency by hiring contractors from underserved communities, enhancing grant access and better tracking these efforts.
While such concrete initiatives are important to diversifying the space industry and opening up the astronaut pipeline, it also matters for young future astronauts to see underrepresented people on high-profile missions like flights to the ISS, inspiring them to follow in their footsteps.
In 2019, NASA’s Christina Koch and Jessica Meir performed the first all-female spacewalk, spending more than seven hours outside the ISS. 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 in her path, just as she was inspired by her role models growing up. “I’m honored and grateful for the opportunity to return the favor,” she says. Not long after, Nicole Mann became the first Native woman in space, and she is currently spending roughly six months stationed on the ISS. Like Watkins, she hopes her mission serves as inspiration to others wanting to become an astronaut, engineer or scientist.
While diversity is one important difference between the coming lunar missions and the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, the Artemis missions are also occurring in an entirely different political and technological environment. The Apollo program as envisioned by President John F. Kennedy was aimed at demonstrating the strength of the U.S.’s space capabilities in the Cold War. “It was not proposed by Kennedy for science, and it was not funded by Congress for science,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “It was primarily a Cold War program.”
With the Cold War a matter of history, Artemis will focus on science and innovation, with the crewed missions heading to places never explored before. Astronauts will travel to the moon’s polar regions, home to what are called “permanently shadowed regions.” Because these regions are incredibly cold, scientists believe they could host water ice deposits. They hold hope that these resources could be extracted for water that could then be turned into oxygen, and then rocket fuel, which would enable a permanent science base on the lunar surface.
Expanding the pool of eligible candidates to include math and science graduates emphasizes NASA’s new focus. Historically, it selected pilots and those with a military background for astronaut training. Now “they are selecting scientists and doctors, people who have that STEM background but aren’t necessarily engineers or test pilots,” says space analyst Laura Forczyk of Astralytical, an aerospace consulting firm.
Before coming to NASA, astronaut Loral O’Hara was a research engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she worked on human-occupied submersibles, including Alvin, which famously explored the wreckage of the RMS Titanic. The lunar south pole will be dark, and her experience navigating in the deep and dark ocean waters might help with navigating and working in the shadowed craters of the moon. The agency also recently selected Deniz Burnham, who has experience as a field engineer on a remote oil rig, to train for the astronaut corps. Her experience may prove helpful as NASA works to extract key resources—like water—from the lunar surface.
Current astronauts are already preparing to set up a science base on the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program. “The focus is those critical skills that are needed not only to save their lives, but to get the science that we need on the surface of the moon,” says David Armstrong, chief training officer in NASA’s flight operations directorate. Goals for the early human missions to the surface include assessing the risks and resources at the lunar south pole, where NASA plans to set up its Artemis Base Camp. To do that, moonwalking astronauts will need training in field geology, sample collection and the deployment of experiments on the surface.
Artemis astronauts are also practicing piloting skills for the Orion spacecraft in simulators and suiting up in a massive pool to prepare for the gravity and darkness at the lunar south pole. Practicing for a near pitch-black spacewalk submerged in the pool, dubbed the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, is “totally unnerving,” says Armstrong. But the astronauts “pull on their experiences and lean on one another, as well as us in the control center to build up that trust.”
Even though five decades separate the Artemis and Apollo programs, NASA astronauts are revisiting those early moon missions for inspiration and insight into training and planning.
“We literally read transcripts of what [Apollo 11 astronauts] Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were talking about as they came down [on the moon], both real-time and in their debriefs,” says NASA astronaut Christina Koch.
Koch spent 328 days in space aboard the ISS, setting a record for the longest continuous time in space by a woman. Between the need for astronauts with long-duration space flight experience, and NASA’s call to put a woman on the moon, Koch could very well be chosen for Artemis 3.
“To be here at a time when we are pursuing these huge questions and going in these bold new directions is awesome,” says Koch. “The fact that I might get to be a part of it is almost unfathomably amazing.”
For Koch, NASA’s commitment to diversity through the Artemis missions is paramount to the success of the agency and humanity.
“We have to do it for all and by all,” she says. “If we’re not doing that, we’re not truly answering humanity’s call to explore, and that’s what we’re celebrating.”