NASA Announces Artemis II Crew For Next Moon Mission
This week, NASA announced the four person crew of the Artemis II mission to the moon: Commander Reid Weisman, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Christina Koch and Jeremy Hansen.
The crew has three firsts for a moon mission, the first woman, first person of color and first Canadian.
While these Artemis II astronauts will not actually step foot on the moon, it’s an important milestone for NASA’s first moon mission since Apollo.
Ira talks with Swapna Krishna, host of the PBS digital series, Far Out about this week’s announcement and the future of the Artemis mission.
Swapna Krishna is a journalist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
This week NASA announced the four-person crew of the Artemis II mission. That’s a mission to send astronauts to circle the moon. There is three firsts in the group– first woman, first person of color, first Canadian– to travel to the moon. And while these Artemis II astronauts will not actually set foot on lunar soil, it’s an important milestone for NASA’s first moon mission since Apollo. Think Apollo 8, v2.0.
Joining me now to talk more about this week’s announcement and the future of the Artemis mission is my guest, Swapna Krishna, host of the PBS Digital series Far Out. She’s based in Philadelphia, PA. Hey, welcome to Science Friday.
SWAPNA KRISHNA: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. NASA really pulled out all of the stops this week, announcing the crew for Artemis II, even making a video trailer, we might call it, of the crew, which looks and sounds like a Hollywood movie trailer. Let’s listen to that.
– I’m Christina Koch. I’m a mission specialist.
– I’m Jeremy Hansen. I’m a mission specialist.
– I’m Victor Glover. I’m the pilot.
– I’m Reid Weisman. I’m the commander of the Artemis II mission to the moon.
– To the moon.
– To the moon.
– To the moon.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. That is to the moon, Swapna, is it not?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: It is. It is. It’s absolutely hilarious. I love it. I love the pomp and circumstance around these things. So, personally, I love it. But it’s also so earnest and so cheesy, and it just makes me laugh.
IRA FLATOW: Who is it aimed at?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: I think it’s aimed at kids. I think it really is. It’ll get anybody pumped up. This is the Hollywood treatment, as you mentioned, of astronauts in the movies that we’ve seen, with this bombastic music. You have the stepping out of the shadows.
I showed it to my four-year-old, and he said, mama, these are heroes. And I was like, OK, yeah. I see that.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I mean, this is a generation that’s just seen robots going to different places– Mars, the moon, things like that– and not people, like I did, my generation.
SWAPNA KRISHNA: I grew up loving space, but we didn’t get that. So it’s about the younger generation, sure. But for us, it’s always exciting to send people to space, regardless of where they’re going. But it was very much, why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we going further out? We’ve been to the moon. Why are we not there now? And so it’s exciting for me to see this as well.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk more about the makeup of this four-person crew. Who are they?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: We’ve got Jeremy Hansen. He’s a rookie. He’s our Canadian astronaut on this mission. Christina Koch, who I believe she has the record for the longest duration single spaceflight by a woman because of her stint on the ISS. She’s a mission specialist, as is Jeremy Hansen.
We have Victor Glover, who’s going to be the first person of color. And he was the pilot for Crew I. So very experienced. And then Reid Weisman is the commander of the mission, also very experienced. And he was the chief of the Astronaut Office before– my speculation is– he resigned because he wanted this flight. So there were a lot of questions– why did he resign? And I think now we know.
IRA FLATOW: I look at the diversity. And I think that’s what NASA is aiming for, right? A diverse crew to land– or at least be the first people– to circle the moon. And I’m thinking that, to be clear, NASA deployed diverse crews to the Space Shuttle for, what, 30 years. And now, isn’t it almost an everyday thing, an everyday occurrence?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: I think it absolutely is for going to the ISS, going to low-earth orbit. But we’ve only ever had white men go to the moon. I think it’s good that we’re paying attention to it. I think a lot of people are a little cynical about, well, this should have already happened. But yeah, we haven’t been to the moon in 50 years.
I am glad they’re making it explicit that this will be the first woman, the first person of color. And that’s been a part of the Artemis program ever since the former NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, pulled together this program from what was left after it had been gutted over and over again.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the mission itself. As I say, it’s not actually landing on the moon. What is the purpose?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: The purpose is basically to test the hardware and the software. We’ve been to the moon, of course. But as much as I wish the bombastic trailer makes it feel like a movie, but it’s not a movie. You can’t just like boost Apollo 11 from the National Air and Space Museum, stick it on top of a rocket, and go back to the moon. This is all new hardware, all new software. So we need to test it. And before we can land on the moon, we need to test how it does in orbit.
We did that a little bit with the first mission, Artemis I, which took off in November. But now, this is the first crewed mission of the program. So what they’re going to do is take off and do a lot of testing of the hardware and software in low-earth orbit and high-earth orbit, and then around the moon and back.
IRA FLATOW: And we’re always testing how space affects people, right, with the radiation, the time in space?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: Basically, because of the radiation trapped around the earth thanks to the Van Allen belts, we don’t have a ton of data on what happens on longer-duration space flights to the moon and back. All we have are those Apollo flights.
So what this will do is it’s going to test what kind of radiation these astronauts are exposed to outside of the Earth’s magnetic field. What will happen to them when they pass through the Van Allen belts? And how safe is it to send astronauts on these long distance and duration space missions? We don’t know.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And we’re also recreating the iconic Apollo 8 mission, which went around the moon. And Bill Anders took that iconic Earthrise photo of the Earth, right, peeking up behind the moon. Are we going to have a moment like that, do you think, on this mission?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: 100%. We are definitely going to have a moment like that. I think there wasn’t as much awareness– especially the early days of Apollo– there wasn’t as much awareness of how important photography was. Earthrise was actually an afterthought by Bill Anders. They saw this view and were like, oh, we probably should take a picture.
I’m sure somebody will be assigned to take a picture– and take many pictures– as we come back around from the far side of the moon, as this mission does. The images are so important. The science is important. The text is important. But in terms of communication, you cannot beat somebody who has a busy day, who doesn’t feel like they have time to sit down and read an article about the mission, but they can get captured by a photo.
IRA FLATOW: Now that we have all this anticipation, do we know what day we’re talking about for this launch?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: We don’t even know what year we’re talking about yet.
The mission is currently scheduled for no earlier than November 2024. That is probably unlikely. 2025 is likely, I think, for this mission. Delays are part of the game when you’re talking about space.
And SLS did have a lot of problems for Artemis I’s launch. There was a lot of stuff to work through. And because this is going to be the first mission that humans are on, there’s going to be even more to work through. But, hopefully, they’ll have figured out a lot of these propulsion issues before the rocket is even rolled out.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And that’s a big difference also between the Apollo mission– I mean, it took only seven months between circling the moon in, what, December, and then they landed on the moon back in July. And then, bingo, it wasn’t years after that. Why such a big delay here?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: It’s really simple. And it’s money. It’s basically, there’s just not enough funding to get done what they want to get done. To save money, SLS’s engines were literally ripped out of the Space Shuttles. Those RS-25 engines were taken from the Space Shuttles and put on to SLS in an effort to save money, but has actually been one of the biggest cost overruns in NASA history.
IRA FLATOW: It’s always about the money, isn’t it?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: Yep.
IRA FLATOW: Would any of the astronauts in Artemis II, the folks who are going on this mission, be on the mission that follows, and actually step foot on the lunar surface?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: Not in the mission that follows just because NASA doesn’t assign astronauts to back-to-back missions. It’s likely that the Artemis III astronauts will be assigned and training by the time that Artemis II takes off. So no, not the next mission. But it could absolutely be a subsequent mission. I would not be surprised to see somebody like Christina Koch or Victor Glover assigned as commander of a future mission.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We always hear that the eventual goal here in these moon missions is a stepping stone to go to Mars, right? How close are we really to that space mission to Mars?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: The short answer is we are not close. As much as we would like for it to happen fast, we need to get used to working and living in lunar orbit and on the lunar surface before we can move on to Mars. Artemis IV, which is 2030 at this point, is around putting Lunar Gateway in orbit of the moon. Which is a lunar space station. It’s going to be like the ISS, but in lunar orbit.
That’s going to be the hub for the Mars missions. But that has to be assembled first. So if we’re not talking about assembling Lunar Gateway until 2030, and then 5 to 10 years to complete that, then we can go to Mars. And so it’s going to be a while, is the short answer.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll all look forward to this, Swapna. And you’ll keep coming back and talk about it, will you, please?
SWAPNA KRISHNA: I will, yes. Human spaceflight makes my heart flutter. So I’m so excited about this.
IRA FLATOW: Very exciting. And I hope everybody who’s watching it this generation will be as excited as I was, and all the other folks, when we finally got somebody to land on the moon in 1969.
Swapna Krishna, host of the PBS Digital series Far Out, thank you for taking time to be with us today.
SWAPNA KRISHNA: Thank you.