Vice President Mike Pence will announce a cadre of 18 astronauts from whom NASA is likely to choose the commanders, pilots, and mission specialists who will go to the Moon as part of the Artemis Program.
Multiple sources said Pence would release a list of names on Wednesday at the National Space Council meeting in Florida as part of an update on NASA’s Artemis Moon program. These will not be formal crew assignments for upcoming missions but rather a cadre from which astronauts will be selected for upcoming flights. Some of the astronauts will be in attendance.
The first crewed lunar mission, Artemis II, is likely to carry four astronauts around the Moon to test the Orion spacecraft’s life-support systems. This will essentially be a reprise of the Apollo 8 mission flown in December 1968, and it could fly as soon as 2023. The first Moon-landing mission, Artemis III, may carry two or four astronauts and is unlikely to fly before 2026. This will depend on the extent to which the incoming Biden administration supports Artemis.
NASA had intended to announce this “Artemis Cadre” earlier in 2020, but COVID-19 precluded public ceremonies with pomp—the goal was to generate excitement about Artemis and engender public support. Then, this fall, the agency did not want to announce the names near the election, for fear of politicizing the program.
Still, politicization may be difficult to avoid that given that Pence is making the announcement at what will be his final meeting as chairman of the National Space Council. The agenda of this meeting suggests it will be something of a “victory lap” for the Trump administration to note its accomplishments in civil and military space.
There has been some resistance to making this announcement from the Houston-based Astronaut Office. When initially asked for names to include in a cadre, the Astronaut Office at first demurred, but the White House and NASA headquarters pressed for names. The Houston-based leadership of the Astronaut Corps did not want a publicly named group because it would essentially create a group of “favorites” within the office, undermining a sense of unity shared among the space fliers. Officials from NASA declined comment for this story.
“It is unusual”
There are presently 47 NASA astronauts in the office who are eligible for a flight assignment, including the 11 members of the 2017 class who have not yet flown into space. Among the corps, 16 of the astronauts are women, and those named among the cadre will undoubtedly be subjected to heightened scrutiny as one of them may become the first woman to set foot on the Moon.
The timing of this announcement is notable. Certainly, if NASA is planning to send humans into deep space within three years, it is time for a group within the Astronaut Corps to begin training, be it studying geology or becoming immersed in the various lunar lander development programs.
However, some sources questioned why this announcement needed to be made now, with only a little more than a month before Pence would leave office and exit the National Space Council. Agency administrator Jim Bridenstine also plans to resign on President Trump’s last day in office, on January 20, 2021. The space council meeting thus offers the Trump administration its last chance to put its stamp on the Artemis program.
“It is unusual for someone to assign a crew on their way out the door,” one former astronaut told Ars. “This will probably end up making a splash because they want it to, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Astronaut Office hates being used as a political prop, and this reeks of it.”
Typically, flight assignments are handled by the chief of the Astronaut Office—currently three-time astronaut Patrick Forrester—and the leadership of the Flight Operations Directorate at Johnson Space Center. The space council meeting begins at 12:30pm EST (17:30 UTC) and will be streamed on NASA TV.