CNN Unique: Secretive course of to pick out astronauts for NASA’s subsequent moon mission

CNN Unique: Secretive course of to pick out astronauts for NASA’s subsequent moon mission

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Someday this spring, NASA will make one of many largest bulletins in its historical past when it names the preliminary four-person crew for its flagship Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon for the primary time in 50 years.

Scheduled to launch in 2024, Artemis II would be the program’s first crewed mission to orbit the moon, flying farther into house than any people for the reason that Apollo program and paving the way in which for the Artemis III crew to stroll on the moon in 2025 — all aboard the strongest rocket ever constructed and at a price ticket that by then will method $100 billion.

But, as publicized because the Artemis II mission is, the method of how its crew might be chosen is so secretive that it stays a thriller even for a lot of on the within. Apart from asserting the astronauts’ nationalities — three People, one Canadian — NASA has mentioned nearly nothing publicly about who might be chosen or how that call might be made.

CNN spoke with practically a dozen present and former NASA officers and astronauts to drag again the curtain on the secretive choice course of. Primarily based on these interviews, CNN not solely gained unique insights into how the crew might be chosen — it has additionally whittled down the record of candidates these insiders say are producing essentially the most buzz at NASA.

Reid Wiseman speaks during the NASA 2021 Astronaut Candidate Announcement at Houston's Ellington Field.

On the high of everybody’s record for the primary Artemis crew is Reid Wiseman, a 47-year-old adorned naval aviator and check pilot who was first chosen to be a NASA astronaut in 2009. Wiseman stepped down as chief of the astronaut workplace in November, a prestigious job traditionally liable for choosing the preliminary crew task for every mission, however which additionally comes with an enormous catch — the chief isn’t eligible to fly in house.

“Being chief is a crummy, awful job,” former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman advised CNN. “Nobody needs it, particularly now.”

Whereas it could be a job that few astronauts need forward of the Artemis crew assignments, it does include one large benefit.

“Traditionally, the one advantage of being chief is that, while you did step down, you gave your self the very best flight task accessible on the time. That was sort of an acknowledged perk,” Reisman mentioned. “You probably did this horrible job on our behalf. Thanks for doing that. Right here’s your reward. You get to place your self in the very best seat round.”

With out query, the very best open seat proper now could be on Artemis II — a high-pressure, high-visibility mission that can ship 4 astronauts on a roughly 10-day mission across the moon and again.

INTERACTIVE: Hint the trail Artemis I’ll take across the moon and again

Earlier than stepping down as chief in November, simply two days earlier than the launch of Artemis I, this system’s first profitable uncrewed check flight, Wiseman made one other consequential transfer in August, when he reversed a earlier NASA determination to pick out the Artemis crew from an preliminary core group of simply 18 astronauts beforehand deemed the “Artemis Group.”

As an alternative, Wiseman expanded the group of candidates to all 41 energetic NASA astronauts.

“The best way I take a look at it, any one in every of our energetic astronauts is eligible for an Artemis mission,” Wiseman mentioned on the time. “We simply wish to assemble the precise crew for this mission.”

Figuring out the “proper crew” for a mission to house has at all times been a mysterious course of, going all the way in which again to the Nineteen Fifties. That’s when NASA was making its first flight assignments for its preliminary Mercury missions, made well-known by Tom Wolfe’s ebook “The Proper Stuff.”

Although the factors could have modified, the method stays extremely secretive. CNN has realized the choice for who will get to go to the moon might be made by three key individuals at NASA’s Johnson Area Middle in Houston, the place each US astronaut has lived and educated since 1961.

The primary individual within the determination course of is the chief astronaut, a job at the moment stuffed on an appearing foundation by Wiseman’s deputy, Drew Feustel. Sources advised CNN that the chief, whether or not it’s Feustel or another person, will take their preliminary suggestions to the pinnacle of the Flight Operations Directorate, Norm Knight, after which on to the director of Johnson Area Middle, Vanessa Wyche, who’s liable for signing off on the ultimate 4 picks.

Cracking the code on how that call is made is as advanced as spaceflight itself.

“To this present day, it’s a darkish space,” former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane advised CNN. “It’s terra incognita (unknown territory). No one is aware of! A minimum of not in our period they didn’t.”

What is understood is that NASA Administrator Invoice Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Florida, may have no position within the course of, one thing he confirmed for the primary time to CNN earlier in January when he mentioned that the house company’s Washington management will “keep out of the choice” of the Artemis II crew.

“That’s performed by the individuals on the Johnson Area Middle. They are going to make the choice,” Nelson advised CNN. “I have no idea in the event that they’ve determined who the crew is, nor ought to I.”

The one factor set in stone is that the Artemis II crew will include three American astronauts and one Canadian, phrases that have been cemented in a 2020 treaty between the 2 international locations. From the start, NASA has additionally emphasised the necessity for a program named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, Artemis, to have a crew with a heavy mixture of gender, racial {and professional} variety.

Top row, left to right: Randy Bresnik, Victor Glover, Jeremy Hansen, Christina Koch, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, Stephanie Wilson and Reid Wiseman.

NASA has a much more various pool of astronauts to select from now than throughout the Mercury program, when all seven astronauts have been White, male, navy check pilots. Greater than a 3rd of the Artemis technology’s 41 astronauts are girls and 12 are individuals of shade.

The Artemis technology of astronauts can also be professionally various, with solely 16 pilots in its ranks. The remaining are “mission specialists” with experience in biology, geography, oceanography, engineering and medication.

Almost a dozen present and former NASA officers and astronauts advised CNN they anticipated a number of check pilots being named to the crew of Artemis II, for the reason that mission marks the primary crewed check flight to the moon for the reason that Apollo program.

“Simply having the braveness to go in there and be the primary ones and be cool about it, that does take a certain quantity of ability and expertise and maturity,” mentioned Reisman, the previous astronaut. “We’re going past Low Earth Orbit for the primary time in a really very long time, on solely the second flight of this automobile.”

If Wiseman, a White man, is chosen, which means the opposite spots will nearly actually have to go to at the very least one girl and at the very least one individual of shade.

Folks acquainted with the method inform CNN that together with Wiseman, there are a handful of different candidates atop the record. Amongst them is Victor Glover, a 46-year-old naval aviator who returned to Earth from his first spaceflight in 2021 after piloting the second crewed flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and spending practically six months aboard the Worldwide Area Station. The veteran of 4 spacewalks earned a grasp’s in engineering whereas moonlighting as a check pilot.

Randy Bresnik, 55, can also be a adorned naval aviator and check pilot who flew fight missions in help of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has flown two missions to the Worldwide Area Station: one on the Area Shuttle, one other on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Bresnik is commonly talked about as a high contender for Artemis as a result of, since 2018, he has overseen the astronaut workplace’s growth and testing of all rockets and spacecrafts that might be used within the Artemis missions.

There are 4 girls who individuals acquainted with the method inform CNN are atop the record of possible candidates. Amongst them are Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, each of whom made historical past in 2019 when collectively they carried out the first all-female spacewalk.

The 43-year-old Koch, a veteran of six spacewalks, additionally holds the document for the longest single spaceflight by a lady, with a complete of 328 days in house. Koch, {an electrical} engineer, and Meir, a 45-year-old biologist, have been each chosen as mission specialists in NASA’s 2013 astronaut class after stints at distant scientific bases in polar areas. That have of surviving in hostile climates and uncomfortable environments is essential for a crew who might be cramped inside a 17-foot-wide (5-meter-wide), gumdrop-shaped capsule for roughly 10 days.

“We pleasure ourselves on expeditionary conduct: being a superb teammate, emptying the trash can when it’s full, cleansing out the dishwasher when your mother and father ask you. These types of issues,” Wiseman mentioned in August. “That’s actually what we’re in search of in these first Artemis missions. Technical experience. Group participant.”

Anne McClain is a adorned military pilot and West Level graduate who flew greater than 200 fight missions in help of Operation Iraqi Freedom and went on to graduate from the US Naval Take a look at Pilot College in 2013, the identical yr she was chosen to be a NASA astronaut. After launching on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2018, the 43-year-old spent greater than 200 days in house on the Worldwide Area Station and served as lead spacewalker on two spacewalks.

Stephanie Wilson is essentially the most senior astronaut on this record. The 56-year-old was chosen to be an astronaut greater than 1 / 4 century in the past within the class of 1996. Wilson served as a mission specialist on three Area Shuttle flights, together with the primary flight after the 2003 Columbia catastrophe, which killed seven astronauts.

The ultimate seat on the Artemis II crew might be stuffed by a Canadian, and Jeremy Hansen is essentially the most buzzed about astronaut with the Canadian Area Company. Hansen was chosen to be an astronaut nearly 14 years in the past, however he’s nonetheless ready for his first flight task. The 47-year-old fighter pilot lately grew to become the primary Canadian to be put answerable for coaching for a brand new class of NASA astronauts.

All eight astronauts on CNN’s record of high contenders are extremely certified overachievers within the prime of their careers. However typically the deciding issue can come all the way down to one thing frustratingly small.

“The issue is it may be influenced by trivial issues, like what measurement spacesuit you put on. If there may be solely a medium and a big and also you want the extra-large, you’re screwed. You’re not going to get assigned to the mission,” mentioned Reisman, the previous astronaut and veteran of three spacewalks. “It may be loopy, little issues that dictate the way it all comes out and it’s not at all times essentially the most equitable or clear course of.”

Sometimes, NASA additionally strives for a professionally various crew with a wholesome mix of rookies and veterans, aiming for a mixture of navy pilots and citizen scientists — medical doctors, engineers, astrophysicists, biologists and geologists — with a variety of strengths.

“Not all astronauts are created equal with regards to how good they do the job. Not all astronauts are equally pretty much as good at doing spacewalks. Not all astronauts are equally pretty much as good at doing robotics,” Reisman mentioned. “The usual line is, if you happen to’re certified, you’re certified. If you happen to go the check, then it shouldn’t matter. However when you might have actually tough missions, it does matter, and also you do wish to put your finest crew ahead.”

That’s very true for the crew of Artemis II, which might be driving on a rocket that’s solely had one profitable check flight.

On flight day 20 of the Artemis I mission, Orion captured the moon on the day-of-return powered flyby.

As secretive because the crew choice course of is for Artemis, it was once much more complicated. That was very true throughout the early days of the Area Shuttle program when, for the primary and solely time in NASA’s historical past, a non-astronaut had close to complete management over who flied and who stayed behind on Earth: George Abbey.

“George didn’t function by committee any greater than Josef Stalin had. His was the one voice that counted,” wrote Mullane, the retired astronaut, in his memoir, “Using Rockets,” in regards to the former director of the Johnson Area Middle. “Every little thing about a very powerful facet of our profession — flight assignments — was as unknown to us because the darkish matter of house was to astrophysicists.”

By the point former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who famously spent a yr in house, was chosen in 1996, the facility had shifted again to the chief astronaut. Kelly described the flight task course of as nonetheless “shrouded in thriller,” although he did recall a push towards extra transparency by then-Chief of the Astronaut Workplace Bob Cabana, the present affiliate administrator of NASA.

“Bob put an enormous board in his workplace. He had all of the shuttle flights lined up and sure individuals’s names could be penciled in subsequent to them,” Kelly mentioned. “Reid (Wiseman) did one thing comparable. He was extra of an open ebook. He would inform individuals what he was considering.”

Now, Wiseman is on the opposite facet, ready together with each different energetic astronaut for the announcement of a lifetime, which the NASA administrator mentioned would come “later within the spring.”

For many who don’t make the minimize, Artemis is much from the one recreation on the town. NASA astronauts are at the moment coaching and flying to the Worldwide Area Station for long-duration spaceflights on the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. A 3rd choice, Boeing’s Starliner, is slated to fly astronauts for the primary time this spring. The expectation is that each energetic astronaut will finally be assigned to a flight. However solely eight will get to fly to the moon on both Artemis II or Artemis III.

“This can be a particular and distinctive alternative and, frankly, I’m going to be tremendous jealous of whoever they decide,” Reisman mentioned.

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