On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence hosted his last meeting of the National Space Council in Florida, using the opportunity to announce a list of NASA astronauts who will be considered for future missions to the Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
This cadre of astronauts — dubbed the Artemis Team — includes 18 astronauts, some with past flight experience and some who have yet to fly to space. The list includes some notable names, such as Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, the two women who made history by performing the first all-women spacewalk. Two of the astronauts, Victor Glover and Kate Rubins, are currently living on board the International Space Station. Five of the 18 made an appearance at the National Space Council meeting today at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida: Meir, Jessica Watkins, Anne McClain, Matthew Dominick, and Joe Acaba.
With no flight assignments made yet, it’s unclear which of the nine women in the group will be the first chosen to fly to the Moon — a goal that NASA has been touting since the creation of the Artemis program. And it’s possible that this group will change, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “This is the first cadre of our Artemis astronauts,” he said at the meeting. “I want to be clear, there’s going to be more.”
The meeting didn’t just focus on the astronauts. Pence also announced that President Trump released a new National Space Policy, a 32-page document laying out the president’s space vision for the executive branch. “It emphasizes that space is critical to our security and our way of life, and lays out the fundamental principles to put America first in space,” Pence said of the policy. The previous National Space Policy was issued in June 2010 under the Obama administration. Pence also announced today that the administration would be renaming two Air Force bases — the Patrick Air Force Base and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — to Space Force bases. Another base will also be named after the pioneering aviator Chuck Yeager, who died at the age of 97 on December 7th.
The astronaut announcement, in particular, is an interesting statement to make as the country prepares for a new administration. In the past, transitions have resulted in abrupt changes to space policy. Under the Obama administration, NASA had been focused on putting people on Mars, but in 2017, President Trump signed a space policy directive tasking NASA with returning people to the Moon. Ever since then, NASA has been hard at work crafting a program to get astronauts to the lunar surface, using a mixture of hardware that’s long been in development as well as spacecraft that still needs to be built.
In 2019, Pence famously challenged NASA with achieving its first lunar landing under the Artemis program by 2024, an incredibly ambitious deadline that would be difficult to meet. Bridenstine has worked hard to secure extra funding, lobbying Congress to spend an extra $3.4 billion next year to help fund lunar landers that will take humans to the surface of the Moon. So far, lawmakers have drafted legislation that would partially fund these landers, but they seem reluctant to provide the full amount.
With President-elect Joe Biden set to take office in January, the future of the Artemis program is even more uncertain. No officials associated with the incoming Biden administration have provided any hints of what the new president’s space agenda will look like, especially in regards to the human exploration program.
But for now, NASA is still working toward its Moon goal. The Space Launch System — the giant rocket that the space agency plans to use to send people to the Moon — is about to undergo a key test in Mississippi ahead of its first uncrewed flight, scheduled for late 2021. Early next year, NASA also plans to select two companies to move forward with creating new lunar landers. And now, NASA has a distinct group of astronauts it can pick from when it’s time to actually fly people to the Moon again.
With all of these pieces in place, it may make it more difficult for the new administration to cancel the Artemis program. But it’s possible that some significant changes are still in store.