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The four people headed to the Moon — one of them has a familiar face

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Yesterday, April 3, 2023, NASA announced the four astronauts who will make up the crew of Artemis II, which is scheduled to launch in late 2024. The Artemis II mission will send these four astronauts on a 10-day mission that culminates in a flyby of the Moon. While they won’t head to the surface, they will be the first people to leave Earth’s immediate vicinity and be the first near the Moon in more than 50 years.

This mission will test the technology and equipment that’s necessary for future lunar landings and is a significant step on NASA’s planned journey back to the surface of the Moon. As part of this next era in lunar and space exploration, NASA has outlined a few clear goals. The agency is hoping to inspire young people to get interested in space, to make the broader Artemis program more economically and politically sustainable and, finally, to continue encouraging international collaboration on future missions.

 One of the four astronauts chosen by NASA is well known to many American Samoans — and not only because she has spent more time in space than any other woman. Christina Hammock Koch was known as “Tina” back in the day when she was the Station Chief of NOAA’s Atmosphere Observatory at Cape Matatula, on the far eastern end of Tutuila,

She will be the lone woman. She has spent 328 days in space, more than any other woman. She has also participated in six different spacewalks, including the first three all-women spacewalks. Koch is an engineer by trade, having previously worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The commander of the mission will be Reid Wiseman, a naval aviator and test pilot. On his previous mission to the International Space Station, he spent 165 days in space and completed a record of 82 hours of experiments in just one week. Wiseman was also the chief of the U.S. astronaut office from 2020 to 2023.

Serving as pilot is Victor Glover. After flying more than 3,000 hours in more than 40 different aircraft, Glover was selected for the astronaut corps in 2013. He was the pilot for the Crew-1 mission, the first mission that used a SpaceX rocket and capsule to bring astronauts to the International Space Station, and served as a flight engineer on the ISS.

The crew will be rounded out by a Canadian, Jeremy Hansen. Though a spaceflight rookie, he has participated in space simulations like NEEMO 19, in which he lived in a facility on the ocean floor to simulate deep space exploration. Before being selected to Canada’s astronaut corps in 2009, he was an F-18 pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

These four astronauts have followed pretty typical paths to space. Like the Apollo astronauts, three of them began their careers as military pilots. Two, Wiseman and Glover, were trained test pilots, just as most of the Apollo astronauts were.

Mission specialist Koch, with her engineering expertise, is more typical of modern astronauts. The position of mission or payload specialist was created for the space shuttle program, making spaceflight possible for those with more scientific backgrounds.

The four astronauts aboard Artemis II will be the first humans to return to the vicinity of the Moon since 1972. The flyby will take the Orion capsule in one pass around the far side of the Moon. During the flight, the crew will monitor the spacecraft and test a new communication system that will allow them to send more data and communicate more easily with Earth than previous systems.

If all goes according to plan, in late 2025 Artemis III will mark humanity’s return to the lunar surface, this time also with a diverse crew. While the Artemis program still has a way to go before humans set foot on the Moon once again, the announcement of the Artemis II crew shows how NASA intends to get there in a diverse and collaborative way.

In an earlier interview in Samoa News when in 2013 “Tina” was first selected from a field of 6,000 applicants to become an astronaut she talked about how she became interested in space.

She grew up in an era when the dream of space exploration became a reality. Beginning with Skylab and the Lunar Roving Vehicles, and on to America's Apollo space program — which demonstrated that men could indeed travel into space and return safely to earth — the scientific advances were in place when she was born which made one of mankind's most ancient dreams possible.

“My parents are so excited, so proud, so supportive, they know how much I believe in this. My two brothers and two sisters are all so thrilled,” Hammock said. As the eldest of five, she has set the bar high.

Hammock says she wanted to be an astronaut for as long as she can remember …”from the very first time I heard about it,” she told Samoa News.

“My interest began with my dad, who was keenly interested in space. We had scientific magazines about the space program always present in our home … I just always thought it was ‘really cool’… any kind of exploration… things on the frontier… I knew that's where I wanted to be. And of course, space is the ultimate frontier.”

Space as the final frontier… where have we heard that before? Oh yeah... Star Trek. Which prompted the question, “ Are you a big fan of science fiction?”

Her reply was “not really” which she admits always surprises people, and sometimes disappoints them.

With or without science fiction to motivate her, she says she has been preparing most of her life for this moment. “When I was in middle school, I went to Space Camp. But I decided that I would follow my dreams — my own dreams — and if that gave me the skills to be an astronaut, so be it.

When she heard the announcement go out from NASA, she decided to apply. “I recognized that I would be a good candidate, because I really believe that I have things to contribute to the program,” she said.

Hammock has certainly demonstrated an ability to work in remote places. She's worked in Antarctica for three different seasons, “wintering” at the South Pole as well as other coastal stations at the bottom of the world. She has also worked through two winter seasons in Greenland.

Barrow Alaska, which she laughingly called the “Northern Mediterranean” was a NOAA assignment for her as well, similar to her assignment here in American Samoa.

“I absolutely love the work that I do — and the places I get to do them!” she said.

Hammock Koch holds two Bachelors degrees from North Carolina State University (Physics and Electrical Engineering) and a Masters in Electrical Engineering, also from NCSU, which is considered one of the pre-eminent electrical engineering schools in America.

(Bios of the astronauts and information on the upcoming mission from The Conversation.)