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Who will be the first female moonwalker?

Who will take the giant leap for womankind?

More than fifty years after the end of the Apollo program, NASA plans to return to the Moon by 2024 as a “proving ground” to test the next generation of spacecraft ahead of an eventual crewed mission to Mars.

The new program has been named Artemis after Apollo’s twin-sister in Greek mythology, and the space agency has said that the mission will see the first woman to stride the lunar surface.

So, who will she be? No one knows for sure, but it’s a likely bet the candidate will be selected from among NASA’s current roster of 12 female astronauts.

They’re aged between 40 and 53, and are former military pilots, medical doctors and scientists who were picked from among thousands of applicants since the late 1990s.

Predicting who will join Neil Armstrong in the annals of history isn’t an exact science, but several former astronauts and experts interviewed by AFP say the proximity of the deadline mean it probably won’t be a new recruit.

“Now personally, I’d be okay with flying a rookie astronaut to the Moon,” former astronaut Eileen Collins, who flew and commanded Space Shuttles in the 1990s and 2000s, told AFP.

“But if you have enough astronauts who have already flown, they know how they’re going to react in space.

“Some go up there and they have symptoms that might interfere with their ability to do the work. But you don’t know who that is.”

Ken Bowersox, a senior official at NASA, agreed. “I think it will be better to send people who have had at least one flight,” he told AFP.

 

That objective will be easier than ever before because there have never been so many women astronauts.

When NASA was first established in 1958 it only recruited from the military, which was at the time exclusively male.

All 12 moonwalkers between 1969 and 1972 were men, and it wasn’t until 1983 that Sally Ride became the first American woman sent to space.

Scientists and soldiers

The four women of the 21st class of astronauts, recruited in 2013, represent a good mix of youth and experience. Currently between the ages of 40 and 41, they will all have made their first space forays between now and 2020.

Anne McClain, an ex-army helicopter pilot, will be in the International Space Station (ISS) until the end of June.

Well spoken, with a self-assured gaze and a light smile, she embodies the ineffable “right stuff” of NASA’s early recruits.

Also currently in the ISS is Christina Koch, an engineer and passionate mountain climber. She will soon beat the record for the longest time a woman has been in space, at 11 months.

Back in March, the pair almost conducted the first all-female space walk, but a lack of a proper fitting spacesuit meant McClain had to give her place up for her male colleague Nick Hague.

“I think Christina Koch or Anne McClain would be my two top picks,” said Janet Ivey, the presenter of a children’s show on space and a governor of the National Space Society.

But their two female colleagues from the same class, Jessica Meir, a marine biologist who specializes in penguins and geese, and former F/A 18 fighter pilot Nicole Mann, who flew in Iraq and Afghanistan, are also highly qualified.

They are both in the middle of their training to go to the ISS.

In a 2016 interview, all four declared themselves ready to go to Mars if the opportunity presented itself. It’s hard to imagine them turning down a trip to the Moon.

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