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What the Artemis mission could mean for the future of space exploration


Early this morning, an Artemis 1 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a path to circle the moon and Earth. This as American astronauts prepare to return to the moon as part of NASA's Artemis mission. This could happen as early as 2025, and that mission would mean the first woman and the first person of color will walk on the lunar surface. It's been almost 50 years since the last U.S. astronaut stepped on the moon. So why return now? I asked record-setting astronaut Christina Koch.

Why is it so important to go back to the moon? Why not just go right to Mars?

CHRISTINA KOCH: Well, we did go to the moon in the Apollo program.

FADEL: Yeah.

KOCH: That was about 15 years ago that that program ended. And the most important thing at that time was getting there fast. And the difference this time is that we are going not just to go quickly and come back but to stay and to take the scientific benefits, the technology benefits back to Earth and then on to Mars. So an ISS mission may just take hours to get there, the moon mission days, and then a mars mission would be months. So that's kind of what we're looking at.

FADEL: So with the Artemis mission, you could be the first woman - or one of three women - to walk on the moon.

KOCH: We are going in this era where contributions from all people, a much more representative group of population, are being a part of this mission. I have to tell you, Leila, for me, the most exciting thing is that I'm certainly going to know that first woman that walks on the moon. We are all big cheerleaders of each other in the astronaut corps. And that's the most exciting part.

FADEL: And this is the most racially diverse mission in NASA's history. Is that right?

KOCH: Currently, I would say the astronaut corps is certainly one of the most diverse that it's ever been. And the inspirational aspects of this mission really can't be understated. When I was little and was forming my dreams, seeing people that looked like me and represented me was a big part of understanding that I could take on any of those dreams. And when I have the privilege and honor of carrying out missions, I think about inspiring the next generation of explorers. We are not doing it and it's not worth doing if we're not answering all of humanity's call to explore.

FADEL: Fifty years since there's been a mission to the moon. Being part of that today, if you could just talk about what that means.

KOCH: You know, after Apollo, NASA's focus was really on the reusable and amazing vehicle the Shuttle. And at the end of that era, NASA had actually opened a market, and it was time to turn that market over to industry. That's why we see SpaceX, with its innovation, bringing astronauts to and from the space station now again from American soil. Those 50 years in between, I think, were the right amount of time to be able to actually make a commercially viable industry in low-Earth orbit.

FADEL: When you think of the Artemis mission, what is the most important thing for you?

KOCH: For me, the most important thing is that we are coming together to overcome an obstacle that is greater than anything we might - could imagine. And that means taking contributions, literally, from anyone who has a dream and is willing to work hard to achieve that dream for all of humanity. We're going to be answering the biggest philosophical questions of our time, if we can get to Mars, talking about whether or not we're alone in the universe, putting perspective on our place in the universe. And the fact that we are willing to devote ourselves to answering those questions collectively is the important part about this Artemis mission.

FADEL: Christina Koch, thank you so much for your time. And good luck.

KOCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.