For as long as NASA has been aiming for a 2024 moon landing, it has touted that this time, unlike during the Apollo program, a woman will walk on the lunar surface.
Now, we have a better sense of who that woman might be. Vice President Mike Pence finished his term leading the National Space Council at the council's eighth meeting, held today (Dec. 9) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, by introducing 18 NASA astronauts who make up the heart of the Artemis crews — assuming the incoming administration led by President-elect Joe Biden builds on NASA's existing Artemis program. These are not crew assignments, which are made closer to flight, but reflects the need to begin training for specific tasks sooner rather than later.
"This is the first cadre of our Artemis astronauts," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said before asking Pence to introduce the selected astronauts. "I want to be clear there's going to be more." Bridenstine also emphasized that these crewmembers would also staff flights in low Earth orbit as well as flights going to the moon.
Nine of the 18 selected astronauts are women.
Among the astronauts announced today is one of the five NASA crewmembers currently living and working in orbit. Kate Rubins was selected in the astronaut class of 2009 and arrived at the International Space Station in October for a six-month stint. The flight is her second; she also flew in 2016. During that mission, Rubins became the first scientist to sequence DNA in orbit.
The Artemis astronaut cadre also includes Christina Koch, who was selected to train as an astronaut in 2013 and has flown to space once, spending 328 days in the second-longest single flight by an American astronaut in 2019 and 2020. During her time in orbit, she participated in six spacewalks, including three with colleague Jessica Meir that were the first all-women spacewalks. Before becoming an astronaut, she completed a winter-long stay at Antarctica's South Pole Station.
Meir is also among the new Artemis astronauts; she was selected in the 2013 astronaut class and has made one spaceflight, in 2019 and 2020, during which she conducted three spacewalks with Koch. Before joining NASA, Meir was a biologist; she has raised and trained bar-headed geese and dived in the Antarctic, among other adventures.
Meir looked back on those historic spacewalks for perspective on what becoming the first woman on the moon would mean for her or a colleague, comparing that with how she and Koch felt about their spacewalks.
"To us, it isn't really a personal achievement for us, it is paying homage and tribute to the generations of women and other minorities that really were the boundary-pushers that truly broke those glass ceilings to let us be here today," Meir said. "The great thing for us now is it just seems normal: We're all going to go together to the moon."
In the same class as Koch and Meir is Anne McClain, who spent time in orbit with Koch during her first flight, in 2018 and 2019, during which she completed two spacewalks. Before joining NASA, McClain served in the Army.
The longest-serving astronaut among the Artemis corps is Stephanie Wilson, who was selected in 1996 and made three flights on space shuttle missions. Since her most recent orbital jaunt, she has worked throughout the agency, including within the Astronaut Office in Houston and as a liaison between that office and others.
The Artemis astronaut cadre also includes four women who have not yet flown in space.
Nicole Mann joined the astronaut corps in 2013 with Koch and Meir. Mann has been focused on the commercial crew program and is currently training for her first flight, which will be the first crewed flight of Boeing's Starliner capsule to the International Space Station, scheduled to take place next year. Before becoming an astronaut, she was in the Marine Corps and flew in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kayla Barron is a member of the newest astronaut class; before joining NASA, she served in the Navy. She also completed graduate research focused on nuclear reactors.
Barron's classmate, Jasmin Moghbeli, who was also selected to join the Artemis astronaut cadre, served in the Marine Corps, including in Afghanistan and California. Throughout her military service, she flew primarily helicopters.
Last of the new Artemis announcements is Jessica Watkins, who also just completed astronaut training in 2019. Before joining NASA, she was a geologist focusing on Mars and worked as part of the team behind NASA's Curiosity rover that has been exploring the Red Planet since 2012. Watkins has also participated in a Mars analog mission at the Mars Desert Research Station and an underwater mission as part of NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program.
Whether or when any of these women will set foot on the moon is still unclear. NASA is currently targeting a 2024 human landing, although the incoming Biden administration may slow down that timeline or redirect the agency entirely. Even if the Artemis program continues as it has been shaped, whether these astronauts remain in low Earth orbit, fly around the moon, or finally step on it remains unclear, as today's announcements do not represent formal flight assignments.
Email Meghan Bartels at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.