Marking yet another milestone in the new space age, the US space agency NASA on Monday named the crew for the first Moon mission in five decades.
In a historic first, the crew announced on Monday includes a woman and a Black astronaut for the first time for a Moon mission.
The crew will include three US nationals and one Canadian national. It will blast off into space in Artemis II mission and will orbit the Moon and return to Earth. The mission will humanity to the farthest point yet reached in space. The Artemis II mission will lay the groundwork for the ultimate mission of landing on Moon in Artemis III.
Here we share who are the four astronauts of Artemis II mission, what's the mission about, and how it marks the new space age.
Meet Artemis II crew
The Artemis II crew consists of four astronauts, which include three US nationals and one Canadian national.
The three US nationals are Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, and Christina Koch, and the Canadian astronaut is Jeremy Hanse. The four of them will embark on the unprecedented space journey in 2024.
NASA on Monday shared group photo and individual portraits of the four astronauts.
Wiseman is the mission commander. He will be joined by Victor Glover, an African-American naval aviator; Christina Koch, who holds the world record for the longest spaceflight by a woman; and Canada's Jeremy Hansen, a former fighter pilot and the crew's lone space rookie. Wiseman, Glover and Koch have all lived on the International Space Station. All four are in their 40s.
For the first time, as NASA had stated earlier, a woman and a person of colour are being included in the Moon mission. Until now, all the 12 person to have stepped on the Moon were White men. This is also the first time a non-US national is part of the Moon mission.
"This is humanity's crew," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
These four astronauts will be in the Orion space capsule attached to the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built. The SLS will blast off into space and lunch Orion into the space. After approximately 10-day journey, the Orion would return to Earth.
NASA picked from 41 active astronauts for its first Artemis crew. Canada had four candidates. Almost all of them took part in Monday's ceremony at Johnson Space Center's Ellington Field, a pep rally of sorts that ended with Wiseman leading the crowd in a chant.
Will inspire next generation of explorers: Biden
US President Joe Biden spoke to the four astronauts and their families on Sunday. In a tweet, he said they "will inspire the next generation of explorers".
The @NASA Artemis II crewed mission around the Moon will inspire the next generation of explorers, and show every child – in America, in Canada, and across the world – that if they can dream it, they can be it. pic.twitter.com/X8q3GLTBiQ— President Biden (@POTUS) April 3, 2023
The White House is deeply involved in the Moon program. When Artemis I was launched, which paved the way for Artemis II and later Artemis III, Vice President Kamala Harris was present at the launch site. However, the launch was called off that day and multiple times later because of technical glitches. Harris chairs the National Space Council.
"This is a big day. We have a lot to celebrate and it's so much more than the four names that have been announced," Glover said.
"Am I excited? Absolutely," Koch said to cheers from the crowd of schoolchildren, politicians and others. "But my real question is: Are you excited?" she said to more cheers.
The Canadian Space Agency snagged a seat because of its contributions of big robotic arms on NASA's space shuttles and the space station. One is also planned for the moon project.
Hansen said he's grateful that Canada is included in the flight.
"We are going to the moon together. Let's go!" he said.
During Apollo, NASA sent 24 astronauts to the moon from 1968 through 1972. Twelve of them landed. All were military-trained male test pilots except for Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt, a geologist who closed out that moonlanding era alongside the late Gene Cernan.
Provided this next 10-day moonshot goes well, NASA aims to land two astronauts on the moon by 2025 or so.
Congratulations streamed in from retired astronauts, including Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin and Scott Kelly, the first American to spend close to a year in space.
"Huge risks, huge commitment, eternal benefits for all. What a crew!" tweeted Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian commander of the space station a decade ago who performed David Bowie's "Space Oddity" from orbit.
Artemis space program explained
The Artemis space program is composed of three space missions named Artemis I, II, and III.
The Artemis I was successfully completed last year in which an uncrewed space capsule was launched into space. The capsule orbited the Moon and returned to Earth. There were three human models in the spacecraft, one of which was in the commander's seat. These three models were fitted with censors to check how the unprecedented space journey would affect the human body. The objective was to help prepare for crewed missions in the next two stages of Artemis program.
Artemis II will be the first crewed flight test of the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft around the Moon, according to NASA. It will make a journey similar to Artemis I but with humans. It would make history as it would take humans to their farthest point yet in space.
"Astronauts on their first flight aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft will travel farther into the solar system than humanity has ever traveled before," said NASA.
The success of Artemis II will pave the way for Artemis III which would finally land humans on the Moon.
Artemis III will make history by landing humans on the Moon for the first time in over five decades, with astronauts following the footsteps of 11 men before them, joining the likes of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
The landing on the Moon, however, is not the final goal, but a mere stepping stone of much more ambitious endeavour.
The dawn of the new space age
Unlike previous Moon missions, the Artemis III is not a brief exploratory expedition. It aims at establishing a long-term presence on Moon which would be the stepping stone in the journey to Mars.
"We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars," said NASA.
The NASA will set up a "base camp" on Moon which would allow "robots and astronauts to explore more and conduct more science than ever before".
As for the stated objectives, the NASA said that they are "going back to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation".
The program is therefore much more than merely sending humans on Moon. It is extending human presence from Earth to Moon and it could possibly be the first step in turning the human race into an inter-planetory specie.
Vox explains: "The Artemis program is laying the groundwork for an unprecedented level of activity on the lunar surface, including a human base camp, a series of nuclear reactors, and a mineral mining operation. NASA has expressly said that it wants to develop a lunar economy, and the space agency has also established the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for exploring the moon that more than 20 countries have now joined."
(With AP inputs)