Cheers rippled through the crowd in September of 1962 as Pres. John F. Kennedy’s now indelible words echoed across Rice Stadium: “We choose to go to the moon.” Fifty-nine years later and 30 miles away, Johnson Space Center prepares for the next era in U.S. space exploration—one that will have Houston, and its fame as the Most Diverse City in the World, at its very core.
A group of Americans will soon press their footprints into the moon’s surface for the first time since 1972, and, this time, the boots making those prints will be worn by women and people of color. “We can see ourselves represented in the mission today that didn’t happen before,” says Nujoud Merancy, chief of the JSC Exploration Mission Planning Office. “And that’s not just the astronauts, but the people behind the scenes.”
Named for Artemis, twin sister of Greek mythological figure Apollo, the new program enters its countdown under vastly different circumstances than the politically motivated and militaristically driven Apollo program did in the 1960s and ’70s. That specific era reshaped our understanding of human capability, and the discoveries from its pioneering technological advances continue to permeate our everyday lives. (We mean, you can even get calls inside NRG Stadium now.)
But as so often happens when women step in, Artemis will delve deeper into the nuance of moon expeditioning. The first mission lifts off November 22 with Artemis I, an uncrewed flight test that will travel farther than any human-rated spacecraft ever has before. Future missions will run for longer and gather new scientific data, and landing spots will be numerous, more challenging, and seemingly more interesting. Most importantly, the focus will be on consistency. “We want a program that we can keep doing over, and over, and over again,” explains Merancy, whose team designs and integrates the various programs involved in an Artemis mission, “not do flags and footprints, and then have to stop like Apollo,” she included. Each of these aims serves NASA’s ultimate vision of landing the first people on Mars as early as the 2030s.
While the news of Artemis’ diversity has been heralded as the next space-related giant leap, the announcement (a female astronaut’s role in the program was announced in 2019, while the involvement of astronauts of color was revealed this April) hasn’t come as a shock for staff at JSC, where the nation’s astronaut corps boasts its most multicultural group in the agency’s history. Almost half of its most recent astronaut class were women, and a quarter of its active astronaut corps are people of color, JSC’s astronaut office tells Houstonia. “Our astronaut corps has been very diverse for decades at this point,” adds Merancy. “This is just calling attention to it.”