NASA to name astronauts this year for first Artemis moon mission

Artist’s concept of an Orion spacecraft at the moon. Credit: NASA

NASA will announce later this year the four astronauts who will slingshot around the far side of the moon on the Artemis lunar program’s first crew mission, currently scheduled for launch in 2024, the head of the agency’s human space exploration division recently said. The crew is expected to include three U.S. fliers and one Canadian astronaut.

The Artemis 2 mission will follow two years after NASA’s Artemis 1 test flight, an unpiloted pathfinder mission scheduled to launch no earlier than March from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Artemis 1 will be the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket designed for lunar missions that’s been in development for more than a decade. It will also be first trip by NASA’s Orion crew capsule to the moon, following a demonstration flight that orbited Earth in 2014.

The goal of NASA’s Artemis program is to land astronauts on the moon’s surface for the first time since the final Apollo lunar mission in December 1972. The Artemis program’s first attempt to land a crew on the moon is penciled in for the Artemis 3 mission, scheduled for 2025, with a derivative of the Starship vehicle SpaceX’s is developing in South Texas.

Before attempting a lunar landing, NASA will send four astronauts on a voyage around the far side of the moon on Artemis 2. The mission will carry the crew farther from Earth than any humans in history.

Jim Free, head of NASA’s exploration systems development programs, said Jan. 18 that the agency soon plans to reveal which astronauts will fly on Artemis 2.

“We’re planning on making the announcement for the Artemis 2 crew this year,” Free said in a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee.

NASA announced a cadre of 18 astronauts in December 2020 for possible assignments to early Artemis lunar missions. The same month, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency revealed an agreement to put a Canadian astronaut on the Artemis 2 flight around the moon.

The Canadian flier will join three U.S. astronauts on the Artemis 2 mission.

Canada also secured a spot for a Canadian astronaut on a future mission to the Gateway mini-space station NASA and its international partners plan to construct in orbit around the moon. NASA is providing the flight opportunities for Canadian astronauts in exchange for Canada’s contribution of a large robotic arm for the Gateway, which is intended to serve as a waypoint, spacecraft refueling station, and deep space research outpost in the vicinity of the moon.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft atop the Space Launch System rocket in November during preparations for the Artemis 1 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

After launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin the Artemis 2 mission, the Space Launch System will place the Orion crew capsule into orbit around Earth, where the astronauts will perform checkouts, test out the ship’s rendezvous and docking systems, and then fire Orion’s service module engine to fly to the moon a quarter-million miles away.

The Artemis 2 mission will follow a “hybrid free return trajectory” around the moon. The Orion crew capsule won’t enter orbit around the moon, but still instead loop around the far side and return directly to Earth for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The Orion spacecraft will arc out to a distance of 4,600 miles (7,400 kilometers) beyond the far side of the moon, farther than any humans have ever traveled into space.

The Artemis 2 mission will last around 10 days, paving the way for future landing expeditions and longer-duration flights to the Gateway. As of November, the launch of the Artemis 2 mission from Kennedy Space Center was scheduled in May 2024.

NASA hasn’t confirmed flight opportunities for Japan and the European Space Agency, the other major partners in the Artemis program. But astronauts from both partners are expected to fly to the moon in the Artemis program.

ESA supplies the service modules for Orion missions, and is developing a refueling and communications module for the Gateway station. Japan is helping work on an international habitation module, along with ESA, and could send resupply ships to the Gateway complex.

The first two elements of the Gateway are being built in the United States by Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman for launch together on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket no earlier than May 2024.

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