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Sometime this spring, NASA will make one of the biggest announcements in its history when it reveals the names of the initial four-person crew of its flagship Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon for the first time. in 50 years.
Scheduled for launch in 2024, Artemis II will be the program's first crewed mission to orbit the Moon, fly further into space than any human since the Apollo program, and pave the way for the Artemis III crew to set foot on the Moon. in 2025, all this aboard the most powerful rocket ever built and at a price that by then will be close to US$100 billion.
However, as well known as the Artemis II mission is, the process of choosing its crew is so secret that it remains a mystery even to many inside.
Other than announcing the nationalities of the astronauts - three Americans and one Canadian - NASA has said almost nothing publicly about who will be selected or how that decision will be made.
CNN spoke to nearly a dozen former and current NASA officials and astronauts to learn about the secret selection process.
From those interviews, CNN not only gained exclusive insight into how the crew will be selected, but also narrowed down the list of candidates that tipsters say generate the most interest at NASA.
Reid Wiseman speaks during NASA's 2021 astronaut candidate announcement at Ellington Field in Houston.
(Credit: Robert Markowitz/NASA)
Reid Wiseman, a 47-year-old decorated naval aviator and test pilot who was first selected to be a NASA astronaut in 2009, leads the list of candidates to be part of the Artemis prime crew.
Wiseman resigned in November as chief of the astronaut office, a prestigious post that is historically tasked with selecting the initial crew assignment for each mission, but one that also comes with a major drawback: The chief cannot fly into space.
Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut, told CNN: "Being a boss is a horrible job."
"Nobody wants it, especially now."
Although it may be a job few astronauts want before Artemis crew assignments, it comes with a huge bonus.
"Historically, the only advantage of being a boss is that when you leave, you give yourself the best flight assignment available at the time. It was kind of a recognized advantage," Reisman said.
"You did this horrible job on our behalf. Thank you for doing it. This is your reward. You can sit in the best place."
Hands down, the best available seat right now is on Artemis II, a high-pressure, high-visibility mission that will send four astronauts on a roughly 10-day mission around the Moon and back.
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Before resigning as chief in November, just two days before the launch of Artemis I, the program's first successful uncrewed test flight, Wiseman took another important step in August, when he reversed an earlier decision by NASA to select the crew for Artemis from an initial group of just 18 astronauts previously considered "Team Artemis".
Instead, Wiseman expanded the pool of candidates to NASA's 41 serving astronauts.
"In my opinion, any of our serving astronauts can go on an Artemis mission," Wiseman said at the time.
"We just want to assemble the right team for this mission."
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The "right team"
Determining the "right equipment" for a space mission has always been a mysterious process, dating back to the 1950s. This was when NASA made its first flight assignments for its Mercury program missions, made famous by the Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff".
Although the criteria may have changed, the process is still incredibly secret.
CNN has learned that the decision on who will go to the moon will be made by three key people at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where all US astronauts have lived and trained since 1961.
The first person in the decision process is the chief astronaut, a role currently being filled by Wiseman's deputy, Drew Feustel.
Sources told CNN that the chief, either Feustel or someone else, will take his initial recommendations to the head of the Flight Operations Directorate, Norm Knight, and then to Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, who is responsible. to give the go-ahead to the final four selections.
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Deciphering the secret of that decision is as complex as spaceflight itself.
"As of today, it's a dark area," former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane told CNN.
"It's uncharted territory. No one knows. At least in our time, they didn't."
What is known is that NASA administrator Bill Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Florida, will have no role in the process, something he first confirmed to CNN in early January, when he said that the agency's leadership spacecraft in Washington "will remain out of the selection" of the Artemis II crew.
"That's up to the people at the Johnson Space Center. They'll make the decision," Nelson told CNN.
"I don't know if they already decided who the crew will be, nor should I."
The main contenders
The only thing set in stone is that the Artemis II crew will be made up of three American astronauts and one Canadian, terms that were finalized in a 2020 treaty between the two countries.
From the beginning, NASA has also emphasized the need for the program named after Apollo's twin sister in Greek mythology, Artemis, to have a crew with a strong mix of gender, racial, and professional diversity. .
From top row, left to right: Randy Bresnik, Victor Glover, Jeremy Hansen, Christina Koch, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, Stephanie Wilson, and Reid Wiseman.
NASA now has a much more diverse astronaut pool than during the Mercury program, when the seven astronauts were white, male, military test pilots.
More than a third of the 41 Artemis generation astronauts are women and 12 are people of color.
The Artemis generation of astronauts is also professionally diverse, with just 16 pilots in its ranks.
The rest are "mission specialists" with expertise in biology, geography, oceanography, engineering, and medicine.
Nearly a dozen current and former NASA officials and astronauts told CNN they expected several test pilots to be named to the Artemis II crew as the mission marks the first crewed test flight to the Moon since the program. Apollo.
"Just having the courage to be the first to go to the Moon and to do it calmly takes a certain amount of skill, experience and maturity," said Reisman, a former astronaut.
"We are going beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time in a long time, in what is only the second flight for this vehicle."
If Wiseman, a white man, is selected, that means the other slots will almost certainly go to at least one woman and at least one person of color.
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People familiar with the process tell CNN that, along with Wiseman, there are a handful of other candidates topping the list.
Among them is Victor Glover, a 46-year-old naval aviator who returned to Earth from his first spaceflight in 2021 after piloting the second crewed flight of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft and spending nearly six months aboard the Space Station. International.
The veteran of four spacewalks earned a master's degree in engineering while working as a test pilot.
Randy Bresnik, 55, is also a decorated naval aviator and test pilot who flew combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He has flown two missions to the International Space Station: one on the space shuttle and one on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Bresnik is often mentioned as a top contender for Artemis because, since 2018, he has overseen the astronaut office's development and testing of all rockets and spacecraft to be used on Artemis missions.
There are four women who, people familiar with the process tell CNN, top the list of likely candidates.
Among them are Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, both made history in 2019 when together they carried out the first all-female spacewalk.
Koch, 43, a veteran of six spacewalks, also holds the record for the longest individual spaceflight by a woman, with a total of 328 days in space.
Koch, an electrical engineer, and Meir, a 45-year-old biologist, were selected as mission specialists in NASA's 2013 astronaut class after spending time at remote science bases in polar regions.
That experience of survival in harsh climates and uncomfortable environments is essential for a crew that will be crammed inside a 5-meter-wide, gumdrop-shaped capsule for about 10 days.
"We pride ourselves on our expeditionary demeanor: being a good teammate, emptying the dumpster when it's full, cleaning the dishwasher when your parents ask you to. That kind of thing," Wiseman said in August.
"That's really what we're looking for on those early Artemis missions. Technical expertise. Team player."
Anne McClain is a decorated Army pilot and West Point graduate who flew more than 200 combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and went on to graduate from the United States Naval Test Pilot School in 2013, the same year when she was selected to be a NASA astronaut.
After blasting off on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2018, the 43-year-old astronaut spent more than 200 days in space on the International Space Station and served as lead spacewalker on two spacewalks.
Stephanie Wilson is the oldest astronaut on this list.
The 56-year-old astronaut was selected more than a quarter of a century ago in the class of 1996. Wilson was a mission specialist on three space shuttle flights, including the first flight after the Columbia disaster in 2003, which killed seven astronauts .
The last position on the Artemis II crew will be filled by a Canadian, and Jeremy Hansen is the most in-demand astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency.
Hansen was selected to be an astronaut nearly 14 years ago, but is still waiting for his first flight mission.
The 47-year-old fighter pilot recently became the first Canadian tasked with training a new class of NASA astronauts.
A historically secret process
The eight astronauts on CNN's shortlist are highly-skilled individuals at the peak of their careers.
But sometimes the deciding factor can come down to something frustratingly small.
"The problem is that trivial things, like spacesuit size, can play a role. If there's only one medium and one large and you need the extra-large, you're lost. You won't get assigned to the mission," says Reisman, a former astronaut and veteran of three walks. space.
"It can be crazy, little things that dictate how it all comes out and it's not always the most equitable or transparent process."
NASA typically also strives for a professionally diverse crew, with a healthy mix of rookies and veterans, aiming for a mix of military pilots and citizen scientists -- doctors, engineers, astrophysicists, biologists, and geologists -- with a number of strengths. .
"Not all astronauts are equal when it comes to doing their job well. Not all astronauts are equally good at spacewalking. Not all astronauts are equally good at robotics," Reisman explains.
"The rule is: if you're qualified, you're qualified. If you pass the test, it shouldn't matter. But when you have really tough missions, it does matter, and you want to field your best team."
This is especially true for the crew of Artemis II, which will travel on a rocket that has only made one successful test flight.
On flight day 20 of the Artemis I mission, Orion captured the Moon in the powered flyby on the return day.
As secretive as the Artemis crew selection process is, it used to be even more confusing before.
This was especially evident during the early days of the space shuttle program, when, for the first and only time in NASA history, a non-astronaut had near total control over who flew and who stayed on Earth: George Abbey.
"George was not running on commission, and neither was Josef Stalin. His was the only voice that counted," Mullane, a retired astronaut, wrote in his memoir, "Riding Rockets," about the former director of the Johnson Space Center.
"Everything related to the most important aspect of our career - flight assignments - was as unknown to us as dark matter in space was to astrophysicists."
By the time former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who famously spent a year in space, was selected in 1996, power had reverted to the chief astronaut.
Kelly described the flight assignment process as still "shrouded in mystery," though he recalled a push for greater transparency by then-Chief of the Astronaut Office Bob Cabana, now NASA's associate administrator.
"Bob put up a big board in his office. It had all the shuttle flights lined up and certain people's names were penciled next to them," Kelly said.
"Reid (Wiseman) did a similar thing. He was more of an open book. He would tell people what he thought."
Now, Wiseman is on the other side, waiting along with all the other serving astronauts for the announcement of a lifetime, which the NASA administrator said would come "later in the spring."
For those who don't make the cut, Artemis is by no means the only target.
Currently, NASA astronauts train and fly to the International Space Station for long-duration space flights on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
A third option, Boeing's Starliner, is scheduled to carry astronauts for the first time this spring.
All serving astronauts are expected to be assigned to a flight.
But only eight will be able to fly to the Moon on Artemis II or Artemis III.
"It's a unique and special opportunity and, frankly, I'm going to be very jealous of whoever they pick," Reisman said.