Inside the secretive process to select astronauts for NASA’s next moon mission

Sometime this spring, NASA will make one of the biggest announcements in its history when it names the initial four-person crew for its flagship Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon for the first time in 50 years.

Scheduled to launch in 2024, Artemis II will be the program’s first crewed mission to orbit the moon, flying farther into space than any humans since the Apollo program and paving the way for the Artemis III crew to walk on the moon in 2025 — all aboard the most powerful rocket ever built and at a price tag that by then will approach $100 billion.

Yet, as publicized as the Artemis II mission is, the process of how its crew will be chosen is so secretive that it remains a mystery even for many on the inside. Other than announcing the astronauts’ nationalities — three Americans, one Canadian — NASA has said almost nothing publicly about who will be selected or how that decision will be made.

CNN spoke with nearly a dozen current and former NASA officials and astronauts to pull back the curtain on the secretive selection process. Based on those interviews, CNN not only gained exclusive insights into how the crew will be selected — it has also whittled down the list of candidates those insiders say are generating the most buzz at NASA.

At the top of everyone’s list for the first Artemis crew is Reid Wiseman, a 47-year-old decorated naval aviator and test pilot who was first selected to be a NASA astronaut in 2009. Wiseman stepped down as chief of the astronaut office in November, a prestigious job historically responsible for selecting the initial crew assignment for each mission, but which also comes with a big catch — the chief isn’t eligible to fly in space.

“Being chief is a crummy, lousy job,” former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman told CNN. “No one wants it, especially now.”

While it may be a job that few astronauts want ahead of the Artemis crew assignments, it does come with one big advantage.

“Historically, the one benefit of being chief is that, when you did step down, you gave yourself the best flight assignment available at the time. That was kind of an acknowledged perk,” Reisman said. “You did this horrible job on our behalf. Thank you for doing that. Here’s your reward. You get to put yourself in the best seat around.”

Without question, the best open 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.

Before stepping down as chief in November, just two days before the launch of Artemis I, the program’s first successful uncrewed test flight, Wiseman made another consequential move in August, when he reversed a previous NASA decision to select the Artemis crew from an initial core group of just 18 astronauts previously deemed the “Artemis Team.”

Instead, Wiseman expanded the group of candidates to all 41 active NASA astronauts.

“The way I look at it, any one of our active astronauts is eligible for an Artemis mission,” Wiseman said at the time. “We just want to assemble the right team for this mission.”

The ‘right team’

Determining the “right team” for a mission to space has always been a mysterious process, going all the way back to the 1950s. That’s when NASA was making its first flight assignments for its initial Mercury missions, made famous by Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff.”

Though the criteria may have changed, the process remains incredibly secretive. CNN has learned the decision for who gets to go to the moon will be made by three key people at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where every US astronaut has lived and trained since 1961.

The first person in the decision process is the chief astronaut, a role currently filled on an acting basis by Wiseman’s deputy, Drew Feustel. Sources told CNN that the chief, whether it’s Feustel or someone else, will take their initial recommendations to the head of the Flight Operations Directorate, Norm Knight, and then on to the director of Johnson Space Center, Vanessa Wyche, who is responsible for signing off on the final four selections.

Cracking the code on how that decision is made is as complex as spaceflight itself.

“To this day, it’s a dark area,” former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane told CNN. “It’s terra incognita (unknown territory). Nobody knows! At least not in our era 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 confirmed for the first time to CNN earlier in January when he said that the space agency’s Washington leadership will “stay out of the selection” of the Artemis II crew.

“That is done by the people at the Johnson Space Center. They will make the decision,” Nelson told CNN. “I do not know if they’ve decided who the crew is, nor should I.”

The top contenders

The only thing set in stone is that the Artemis II crew will consist of three American astronauts and one Canadian, terms that were cemented in a 2020 treaty between the two countries. From the beginning, NASA has also emphasized the need for a program named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, Artemis, to have a crew with a heavy mix of gender, racial and professional diversity.

NASA has a far more diverse pool of astronauts to choose from now than during the Mercury program, when all seven astronauts were White, male, military test pilots. More than a third of the Artemis generation’s 41 astronauts are women and 12 are people of color.

The Artemis generation of astronauts is also professionally diverse, with only 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 anticipated multiple test pilots being named to the crew of Artemis II, since the mission marks the first crewed test flight to the moon since the Apollo program.

“Just having the courage to go in there and be the first ones and be cool about it, that does take a certain amount of skill and experience and maturity,” said Reisman, the former astronaut. “We’re going beyond Low Earth Orbit for the first time in a very long time, on only the second flight of this vehicle.”

If Wiseman, a White man, is selected, that means the other spots will almost certainly need to go to at least one woman and at least one person of color.

People familiar with the process tell CNN that along with Wiseman, there are a handful of other candidates atop 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 International Space Station. The veteran of four spacewalks earned a master’s in engineering while moonlighting 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, another 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 spacecrafts that will be used in the Artemis missions.

There are four women who people familiar with the process tell CNN are atop the list of likely candidates. Among them are Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, both of whom made history in 2019 when together they performed the first all-female spacewalk.

The 43-year-old Koch, a veteran of six spacewalks, also holds the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, with a total of 328 days in space. Koch, an electrical engineer, and Meir, a 45-year-old biologist, were both selected as mission specialists in NASA’s 2013 astronaut class after stints at remote scientific bases in polar regions. That experience of surviving in hostile climates and uncomfortable environments is critical for a crew who will be cramped inside a 17-foot-wide (5-meter-wide), gumdrop-shaped capsule for roughly 10 days.

“We pride ourselves on expeditionary behavior: being a good teammate, emptying the trash can when it’s full, cleaning out the dishwasher when your parents ask you. Those sorts of things,” Wiseman said in August. “That’s really what we’re looking for in those first 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 US Naval Test Pilot School in 2013, the same year she was selected to be a NASA astronaut. After launching on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2018, the 43-year-old spent more than 200 days in space at the International Space Station and served as lead spacewalker on two spacewalks.

Stephanie Wilson is the most senior astronaut on this list. The 56-year-old was selected to be an astronaut more than a quarter century ago in the class of 1996. Wilson served as a mission specialist on three Space Shuttle flights, including the first flight after the 2003 Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts.

The final seat on the Artemis II crew will be filled by a Canadian, and Jeremy Hansen is the most buzzed about astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. Hansen was selected to be an astronaut almost 14 years ago, but he’s still waiting for his first flight assignment. The 47-year-old fighter pilot recently became the first Canadian to be put in charge of training for a new class of NASA astronauts.

A historically secretive process

All eight astronauts on CNN’s list of top contenders are highly qualified overachievers in the prime of their careers. But sometimes the deciding factor can come down to something frustratingly small.

“The problem is it can be influenced by trivial things, like what size spacesuit you wear. If there is only a medium and a large and you need the extra-large, you’re screwed. You’re not going to get assigned to the mission,” said Reisman, the former astronaut and veteran of three spacewalks. “It can be crazy, little things that dictate how it all comes out and it’s not always the most equitable or transparent process.”

Typically, NASA also strives for a professionally diverse crew with a healthy blend of rookies and veterans, aiming for a mix of military pilots and citizen scientists — doctors, engineers, astrophysicists, biologists and geologists — with a range of strengths.

“Not all astronauts are created equal when it comes to how good they do the job. Not all astronauts are equally as good at doing spacewalks. Not all astronauts are equally as good at doing robotics,” Reisman said. “The standard line is, if you’re qualified, you’re qualified. If you pass the test, then it shouldn’t matter. But when you have really tricky missions, it does matter, and you do want to put your best team forward.”

That is especially true for the crew of Artemis II, which will be riding on a rocket that’s only had one successful test flight.

As secretive as the crew selection process is for Artemis, it used to be even more confusing. That was especially true during the early days of the Space Shuttle program when, for the first and only time in NASA’s history, a non-astronaut had near total control over who flied and who stayed behind on Earth: George Abbey.

“George didn’t operate by committee any more than Josef Stalin had. His was the only voice that counted,” wrote Mullane, the retired astronaut, in his memoir, “Riding Rockets,” about the former director of the Johnson Space Center. “Everything about the most important aspect of our career — flight assignments — was as unknown to us as the dark matter of space was to astrophysicists.”

By the time former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who famously spent a year in space, was selected in 1996, the power had shifted back to the chief astronaut. Kelly described the flight assignment process as still “shrouded in mystery,” though he did recall a push toward more transparency by then-Chief of the Astronaut Office Bob Cabana, the current associate administrator of NASA.

“Bob put a big board in his office. He had all the shuttle flights lined up and certain people’s names would be penciled in next to them,” Kelly said. “Reid (Wiseman) did something similar. He was more of an open book. He would tell people what he was thinking.”

Now, Wiseman is on the other side, waiting along with every other active astronaut 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 far from the only game in town. NASA astronauts are currently training and flying to the International Space Station for long-duration spaceflights on the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. A third option, Boeing’s Starliner, is slated to fly astronauts for the first time this spring. The expectation is that every active astronaut will eventually be assigned to a flight. But only eight will get to fly to the moon on either Artemis II or Artemis III.

“This is a special and unique opportunity and, frankly, I’m going to be super jealous of whoever they pick,” Reisman said.

This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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