Splashdown practice for Artemis 2 moon mission 'an incredible experience,' new NASA astronaut says (exclusive)

NASA astronaut Christina Birch (in orange flight suit) practices Orion spacecraft entry during an exercise with NASA and the U.S. Navy in February 2024, when she was still an astronaut candidate. (Image credit: U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Connor Burns)

Weeks before passing her astronaut training, NASA's Christina "Chris" Birch found herself out in open water.

The newly minted NASA astronaut was testing the fit of the Orion spacecraft that will support Artemis program astronauts ahead of their planned moon missions. Birch was part of a huge team in February practicing the splashdown for Artemis 2, which will send four other astronauts around the moon in September 2025 before coming back to Earth in the Pacific Ocean.

Off the coast of San Diego, in the choppy Pacific, Birch stepped in and out of Orion to help the team assess how recovery procedures will go after splashdown. "It was an incredible experience," she told Space.com in an exclusive interview after her graduation on March 5.

"It was an amazing learning opportunity for me to be out in the field," added Birch, a former cyclist with the U.S. national team who graduated as a full-fledged astronaut on March 5. Working in groups, she said, "is something that I love to do — I love being immersed in the environment that we're working in."

Related: Get to the choppa! Artemis 2 moon astronauts practice splashdown with U.S. Navy (images, video)

Birch, along with Canadian astronaut Jenni Gibbons, joined the four astronauts of Artemis 2 in a lengthy recovery exercise that, for some teams, spanned weeks of work in the Pacific last month. 

The Artemis 2 crew includes NASA commander Reid Wiseman, NASA pilot Victor Glover (who will become the first Black person to leave low Earth orbit, or LEO), NASA mission specialist Christina Koch (who will become the first woman to go beyond LEO) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) mission specialist Jeremy Hansen (who will become the first non-American to fly to the moon, with Gibbons serving as his backup).

NASA astronaut Christina Birch (in orange flight suit) practices Orion spacecraft entry in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of San Diego, during an exercise with NASA and the U.S. Navy in February 2024, when she was still an astronaut candidate. (Image credit: U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Olivia Rucker)

"This is a great way for me to see, up close and personal, some of what the crew is going to experience and to take that mindset forward as I support other missions," Birch said of the recovery procedures, which involved helicopters, the USS San Diego vessel, and many personnel from both NASA and the Department of Defense using rafts, swimmers and all kinds of support equipment in the ocean.

NASA astronaut Christina Birch during spacewalk (extravehicular activity) training at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. (Image credit: NASA/Josh Valcarcel)

Birch's first assignment post-graduation will be to continue aiding development of the Orion spacecraft, the Lockheed Martin-built NASA vehicle that will ferry astronauts on moon missions and to the future Gateway station in lunar orbit.

"A big part of my job right now is understanding where we are in that program," Birch said, noting that Orion has been in development for decades under various NASA programs. 

Working alongside career Orion technicians, Birch said, means "asking the right questions, maybe bringing with it a fresh mindset." She will be supported in her role by fellow NASA astronaut Randy Bresnick, who has flown twice in space and currently manages developing and testing of all hardware for the Artemis program.

Christina Birch (left) celebrates with fellow cyclist Kimberly Geist after winning the Women's Madison cycling finals at the Pan American Games 2019 in Lima, Peru, on Aug. 4, 2019. (Image credit: Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images)

Artemis 2 and Artemis 3, a planned moon-landing effort in 2026, are the next two missions for the NASA-led Artemis program. (Both missions were delayed in January due to technical issues, but development still continues.) Artemis 1 successfully sent an uncrewed Orion to lunar orbit and back in late 2022.

NASA is leading more than 30 other countries under the U.S.-led Artemis Accords. Most of those countries have signed on to a framework of space exploration norms set by NASA, while a subset are also contributing hardware for direct participation in moon-landing missions and NASA's future Gateway moon-orbiting space station.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace