New NASA Astronauts Celebrate Moon Missions and Private Space Stations as They Prepare for Launch (Exclusive)

By | March 16, 2024

A nervous one Jack Hathaway had to overcome one final obstacle before becoming a NASA astronaut candidate: finding the time to hear the news.

Hathaway waited in 2021 for a call from NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, then head of the astronaut agency, to find out if he could join the agency. But Hathaway was on the transport ship USS Truman, far out at sea, flying with Strike Fighter Squadron 81. So the U.S. Navy commander and pilot continued to miss the crucial call, he told Space.com.

“He finally sent me an email in the late afternoon,” Hathaway said on March 5. Hathaway finished his daily pilot duties, read his emails, and rushed to a ready room to use an open line, namely “you know, a group room.” Unfortunately, just as Wiseman told Hathaway that the carrier pilot had to start packing for NASA training, a group of officers walked by on patrol and saw an excited Hathaway silently placing his hands on his head.

The officers knew Hathaway, who graduated this month from astronaut candidate training, all too well: They were “paddlers,” the people responsible for reviewing the landings of every Navy aviator. “They watched my reaction,” Hathaway said, “and they immediately went around the ship talking to all the other waiting rooms. They told everyone they saw. So I wasn’t successful and kept it a secret.’

Related: NASA is graduating a new astronaut class as it begins recruiting for more

Hathaway and 11 other astronaut candidates – 10 from NASA and two from the United Arab Emirates – completed 2.5 years of basic training this month and will be eligible for future missions.

They have a rich array of spaceflight opportunities to enjoy: possible lunar or lunar space station flights for the Artemis program, month-long missions on the International Space Station (ISS), and missions to future commercial space stations under development.

To be fair, the process will not be without obstacles: the first two planned Artemis crewed missions were postponed in January due to technical issues, and NASA is facing a smaller budget in the 2025 budget year, which could further impact mission planning . But the new astronauts feel energy and optimism when they look at a longer timescale of ten years or more.

“There’s so much to be excited about,” Hathaway said. “The whole team will have to do a lot of hard work. It’s all such a cool time to be a part of the [astronaut] office. You come to the office with all commercial partners conducting moon landings and moon missions, and the opportunity to have multiple commercial partners build lunar landers and human landing systems. I’m just really excited about this.”

Related: Go to the choppa! Artemis 2 moon astronauts practice their landing with the US Navy (images, video)

four white jets fly above a large orange rocket on a launch padfour white jets fly above a large orange rocket on a launch pad

four white jets fly above a large orange rocket on a launch pad

New astronaut and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Jessica Wittner, an aviation machinist by training, said she is excited about how her “garage tinkering” past will help with various spacecraft programs.

The aging ISS will need more maintenance work, and commercial stations will need attention when they come online in the 2030s. In the meantime, every experiment she works on in space or on the ground requires people who feel comfortable “really working with the equipment.” One of her first tasks after graduation will also be working on new spacesuits for astronauts.

“It’s an incredibly busy time to be part of NASA, and to be part of the space industry in general. And I think astronauts will continue to play a huge role in that industry,” she said, pointing out the flight experience they can bring to various engineering teams and companies looking to expand their own experience in low Earth orbit for future commercial space stations.

an astronaut in a flight suit reaching for the nose cone of an airplanean astronaut in a flight suit reaching for the nose cone of an airplane

an astronaut in a flight suit reaching for the nose cone of an airplane

NASA astronaut Jessica Wittner inspects a T-38 jet trainer in 2023. (Image credit: NASA/Josh Valcarcel)

As people fly to different environments, both on the moon and in space, flight surgeon and new astronaut Anil Menon said there will be new medical conditions that need to be addressed along the way. Companies like Axiom Space are now also flying civilians to the ISS, presenting a wider range of people (medically speaking) than you would normally see in the NASA astronaut group.

“I think this opens doors for learning, for all of us,” Menon told Space.com. “If we go to the moon, if we go to Mars, if we think back generations – we would like everyone to be able to fly and participate in the space program… (but) we have to start learning about how differently people respond when they get there. This is the first step in that direction.”

Related: Europe’s new astronaut class consists of two women and a Paralympic trauma surgeon

an astronaut leaning forward while wearing a space suit and helmetan astronaut leaning forward while wearing a space suit and helmet

an astronaut leaning forward while wearing a space suit and helmet

NASA astronaut Anil Menon does training wearing an Artemis moon program Orion spacesuit. (Image credit: NASA/David DeHoyos)

Artemis is the big program on the immediate horizon for the new astronauts. Artemis 2’s four astronauts have been named and are in training for their 2025 round-the-moon mission. Artemis 3 has not yet named its crew for a lunar landing before 2026, leaving a slim window of opportunity for the new astronauts to join. Artemis 4 and beyond, not to mention missions to NASA’s planned Gateway lunar space station, are stronger possibilities for the new astronaut group.

“What excites me is that it’s new. I’ve always been fascinated by new things; I love developing things,” new NASA astronaut Andre Douglas told Space.com about Artemis. In fact, Douglas always has learning opportunities in mind for career advancement. So he left the Coast Guard to work as an engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory before enlisting at NASA.

an astronaut in a space suit in a large warehousean astronaut in a space suit in a large warehouse

an astronaut in a space suit in a large warehouse

NASA astronaut Andre Douglas during spacewalk or extravehicular activity training at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. (Image credit: NASA/James Blair)

“I had to solve new problems and take on new challenges because I really believe in pushing ourselves, in understanding what our true potential is – both me as an individual and within all of us as a species,” he said. “Going to the moon, and then to Mars, that just blows my mind. We’re going to take the things we’ve seen in Hollywood and try to make it happen. So instead of being afraid of the unknown, let’s try to it to it. That’s kind of my motto.”

When asked what excites him about the Artemis program, Naval aviator and new astronaut Jack Delaney joked, “What’s not exciting?” But the retired U.S. Marine major said that as a pilot he is interested in learning how to handle power during a tricky moon landing, which was also a difficult task for the military pilots of the Apollo program in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“You can’t put an unlimited amount of power on a vehicle,” he said. “So which instruments do you effectively use? [and] actually avoid obstacles on the moon while landing at the south pole, where the sunlight is at such a low angle?”

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While pondering the “dark pockets” and “visual illusions” that the deep polar shadows would bring, Delaney emphasized that success must come from a “human informed to make real-time decisions” with a capable spacecraft” equipped with the right instruments. These are all matters, he added: “I am interested in getting involved and making choices for our long-term presence there.”

New astronaut and medical physicist Christopher Williams emphasized that his team is ready to go to the moon and use their skills to get there. “It just gives me goosebumps that some of the people I walked across the stage with today, I think, are going to be on the moon,” he told Space.com. “We’re not only growing, but expanding our portfolio, moving beyond low Earth orbit. I think it appeals to a lot of people in the space of exploration and exploring.”

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