Four astronauts selected to orbit the moon say the Artemis II mission can help inform how Canada responds to food insecurity, health-care needs and climate adaptation in the Arctic.
“How do we actually get eight billion people to row in the same direction and work on these problems? Because these are global problems,” said Jeremy Hansen, a Canadian colonel who will join three Americans in space.
“We can do great things together. We can do better as a human race. And here’s one small example,” he said alongside his crewmates in a Tuesday interview with The Canadian Press.
The mission planned for November 2024 is part of an ambitious plan to establish a long-term presence on the moon, and has NASA hoping Ottawa further boosts its spending on outer space.
The 10-day mission involves slingshotting into deep space for a figure-8 manoeuvre around the dark side of the moon.
If it is successful, Artemis II will mark the first time any human has ventured so far from Earth.
It will also set the stage for another mission planned for 2025 that will include driving a vehicle on the moon’s surface and seeking materials that could be converted into fuel and building supplies.
Mission pilot Victor Glover said the diversity of the small but highly specialized crew, which includes people of two nationalities, a woman and a person of colour, is a deliberate message to the planet.
“This is an example of what we can accomplish, the challenges we can overcome,” said Glover, who is Black.
“When we bring our diverse skill sets together, our countries together, we can do what the president said in your Parliament: ‘big things,’” he said, referencing President Joe Biden’s address to the House of Commons last month.
NASA’s audit branch estimates the Artemis program, which successfully sent an unmanned spacecraft around the moon last November and plans to have astronauts stay a week on the moon, will cost US$93 billion through fall 2025.
The ultimate later ambition is to install a manned outpost in orbit around the moon.
The crew noted that beyond the positive message of co-operation that the mission sends, there are a range of what Glover called “inspirational returns” and economic spinoffs.
Hansen argued the scientific research involved in the mission is particularly important for Canadians, as it will gather reams of data relevant to climate change and test out new ways of coping with remote environments.
He said there is “significant overlap” between having a sustained presence on the lunar surface, and eventually Mars, and dealing with some of the problems back on Earth.
“If we can’t grow food in the Canadian Arctic, how can we expect to do it on the moon and on Mars?” he said.
“These are areas that we can use the inspiration of space to help us bring real benefits to Canadians on the planet and society in general.”
The Canadian Space Agency also sees the mission as a way to advance tech jobs in commercial space robotics, building on the success of the Canadarm series of robotic arms.
Hansen said Canadians must recognize “opportunity lies ahead for us, to leverage a program like Artemis.”
For decades now, the International Space Station has been the only destination for astronauts. Artemis II will be the first crewed mission to the moon since the final Apollo mission took flight in 1972, and the four astronauts will be the first humans to use the Orion spacecraft, which re-entered earth last December after orbiting the moon.
“We don’t have a training plan that’s laid out, that’s tried and true and has been done a bunch of times,” said astronaut Christina Hammock Koch.
“We get to invent it as we go, and it’s incumbent upon us to make it the best that it can be for the future Artemis flyers.”
Koch knows a thing or two about what it is like to adjust to being off the planet, having spent 328 days in the space station.
“Down can feel like up. You can literally feel like you’re moving when you’re not,” she said of the first 48 hours in space.
Yet during that period, her team will be tasked with “some of the most critical mission operations,” such as steering the vehicle and measuring its proximity to other objects, she said.
Mission commander Reid Wiseman said the diversity of the mission was a result of choosing who was best for each role.
“They’ve got outstanding backgrounds and great skills,” he said.
Still, the agency’s head, Bill Nelson, made the point of saying a woman will be among those chosen to walk the surface of the moon when Artemis III gets underway, likely in 2025.
But he did not say whether the first non-American to step onto the moon will be a Canadian.
“It will be the first woman and the next man to walk on the moon. Any allocation of those assignments is way too early to talk about,” said Nelson, a former astronaut.
He noted that the European Space Agency and Japanese Space Agency have both made “substantial investment” in joint programs with NASA.
“Each has flown multiple astronauts with us. Each is increasing their budgets for their space program, and I think we will see a parallel track with Canada as well,” Nelson said.
“Now, with Jeremy going to the moon, I think Canada’s participation is going to increase.”
Hansen, the only astronaut on the mission who hasn’t already been to space, said he wants to show that it’s possible to go from being raised on a farm in rural Ontario to reaching the dark side of the moon.
“My message to Canadians is: ‘Don’t keep yourself small.’ I think we have a habit of doing that,” he said. “There’s so much genius across the country to contribute to the world.”
He said he’s excited by what the Artemis missions plan to discover, from monitoring climate conditions to seeing whether the regolith that coats the moon could be used to create structures that resemble concrete buildings.
“We’re going to have humans walking on the moon, we’re going have humans going to Mars and we’re going to be solving real huge problems on the planet,” Hansen said.
“This is not the pinnacle. This is just one small step.”