HOUSTON — For the first time in more than half a century, NASA has named a crew of astronauts headed to the moon.
Humans have not ventured more than a few hundred miles off the planet since the return of Apollo 17, NASA’s last moon mission, in 1972. After Artemis’s experience on the moon, NASA hopes to chart a path to putting humans on Mars, while scientists expect to use what is found there to answer questions about how the solar system formed.
Astronauts in 2023 are much different from those when the United States was in a race to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. During the Apollo program, 24 astronauts flew to the moon, and 12 of them stepped on the surface. All of them were Americans. All of them were white men, many of whom were test pilots.
This time, the astronaut corps reflects a much wider swath of society.
They are Reid Wiseman, the mission’s commander; Victor Glover, the pilot; Christina Koch, mission specialist; and, Jeremy Hansen, also a mission specialist. The first three are NASA astronauts, while Mr. Hansen is a member of the Canadian Space Agency.
“When we were selecting astronauts back then,” Mr. Glover said in an interview, “we intended to select the same person, just multiple copies.”
Ms. Koch will be the first woman to venture beyond low-Earth orbit, and Mr. Hansen, as a Canadian, the first non-American to travel that far.
“So am I excited?” Ms. Koch said during an event unveiling the crew at Ellington Field, a small airport used by NASA for the training of astronauts. “Absolutely. But my real question is: are you excited?”
The assembled crowd cheered in response.
The mission is a major step in NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts back to the surface of the moon to explore the cold regions near the moon’s south pole. Water ice found in deep dark craters there could supply water and oxygen for future astronauts as well as fuel for missions deeper into space.
“Together, we are going — to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond,” said Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator.
But the four astronauts aboard this next mission, Artemis II, will not land on the moon.
Instead, the travelers will take a 10-day journey that will swing around the moon and come back to Earth. It is currently scheduled for late next year.
“It’s an exciting time for the Artemis people, no question about it,” Harrison Schmitt, the last surviving astronaut from Apollo 17, said in an interview. He added that many people did not “fully realize that we’re about three generations away from any experience with human beings being in deep space, and that’s probably the most important part of the mission.”
Dr. Schmitt, who is also a former United States senator from New Mexico, said he was not necessarily surprised that it had taken so long. “I would say I’m disappointed,” he said. “A lot of things conspired to stop the Apollo program and to keep us from going back for quite a while.”
Mr. Hansen noted that the United States could have undertaken the Artemis missions by itself but instead chose to pull together an international collaboration with Canada and the European Space Agency. That agreement reserved a seat for a Canadian astronaut on Artemis II. “All of Canada is grateful for that global mind-set and that leadership,” Mr. Hansen said.
Mr. Glover, who was the first Black man to serve as a crew member on the International Space Station, said that diversity was “an important aim of the agency and our partners.”
“But it was also going to happen organically because of the corps that we have that represents America so well,” he said.
As the name of the mission indicates, Artemis II will be the second in NASA’s Artemis program. Artemis I launched last November as an uncrewed test of the Space Launch System, NASA’s giant new rocket, and the Orion astronaut capsule. The Orion spacecraft spent two weeks in orbit around the moon before returning to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific.
After years of delay — development of the rocket took longer than originally promised — the Artemis I mission progressed smoothly for the most part, although some problems occurred. The heat shield of Orion protected the spacecraft during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, but more of it came off than had been expected.
Artemis II, with four astronauts aboard, will allow a full check of the Orion’s life support systems. Then NASA officials will feel more confident in undertaking the longer, more complex Artemis III mission, which will include two astronauts landing near the south pole.
Mr. Wiseman, Mr. Glover and Ms. Koch all said they were not disappointed that being part of the Artemis II crew rules out the possibility of walking on the moon during Artemis III.
“This is going to probably sound cliché,” Mr. Wiseman said, “but just flying on any of these missions is an enormous thing. It’s fantastic. I love the idea of going out past the moon.”
He added, “Watching our astronaut colleagues walk on the moon will be a success for us.”
After a long afternoon of interviews with reporters, the four astronauts left the Johnson Space Center, accompanied by a police escort, to NRG Stadium in Houston to watch the NCAA men’s basketball championship game between the University of Connecticut and San Diego State University.
NASA is currently aiming for that first moon landing to occur in late 2025, but the NASA inspector general has predicted the mission would slip to 2026 or later. The Artemis III mission requires the use of Starship — the giant spacecraft being developed by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company — to take the two astronauts from a distant lunar orbit to the surface. The first test launch of Starship to space might take off in the coming weeks.
In the 1960s, the space race reflected the geopolitical jousting between the United States and the Soviet Union. Once the race was won, interest in the moon by the public, politicians and even NASA waned.
There are some geopolitical echoes this time too. China is also aiming to send astronauts to the moon in the coming years. But it is not just governments aiming for the moon now.
Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, has bought a trip on Starship that would loop around the moon similar to the trajectory that Artemis II will take. Dennis Tito, an entrepreneur who was the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station in 2001, and his wife, Akiko, have booked seats on a separate Starship trip around the moon.
Five decades ago, that would have been like a billionaire buying a Saturn V, the rocket that propelled the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Today, it seems almost inevitable that the footprints of tourists will crisscross the lunar surface in the years to come.
In an interview, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who retired in 2013 after three trips to space, compared space travel to the early days of aviation. The wobbly craft that the Wright Brothers built in 1903 flew, but barely. But progress was fast. The first flight for KLM, the Dutch airline, was in 1920.
“Seventeen years from the Wright brothers to a profitable airline that’s still around,” Mr. Hadfield said.
He added that innovation had greatly reduced the cost of leaving Earth.
“You can see that the cost is going to keep coming down as the vehicles get better proven, and that’s going to increase the access and opportunity,” Mr. Hadfield said.
For the Artemis II astronauts, Dr. Schmitt offered some simple advice: “Just enjoy it,” he said.
Vjosa Isai and Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.