By Ronald Bailey, USASMDCAugust 19, 2019
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- No, it is not science fiction. A U.S. Army active duty Soldier could be the next human, and possibly the first female on the moon.
Current NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Army Col. R. Shane Kimbrough discussed this possibility and other attributes of NASA's announced return to the moon in 2024 during an Aug. 7 interview.
While NASA has not announced which astronauts it plans to send to the moon, there are currently three active duty Army members - astronauts Col. Andrew Morgan and Lt. Col. Anne McClain, and astronaut candidate Lt. Col. Frank Rubio - who could eventually be assigned to a lunar mission.
Regardless of who is assigned, Kimbrough said, Army astronauts significantly contribute to NASA's human space flight program. Soldiers are able to operate in austere environments, do not need a lot of amenities, and know the value and importance of teamwork.
"We are not doing anything on our own. Just being able to be a part of a team. Being a good follower and being a good leader. All those things come from, at least in my experience, the Army, and it has helped me to be a successful astronaut," Kimbrough said. "It's all about how you interact with people; how you can be a team player; how you can be a leader. All [of] that are things that I learned in the Army so it has really helped me personally with all those attributes I gained from the Army to be here at NASA."
When asked about the three current Army astronauts and what the future may hold for them Kimbrough said they will have great opportunities to help NASA help the nation get back to the moon and eventually go to Mars.
"They are all going to be part of the Artemis program. Lt. Col. McClain just returned from the Space Station; Col. Morgan is there now," Kimbrough said. "I don't know if Lt. Col. Rubio's first flight will be to the International Space Station or to the moon, but all three of them should have bright futures here at NASA with the Artemis program."
The Artemis lunar exploration program is NASA's commitment to landing American astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, on the moon by 2024. Through Artemis, NASA will demonstrate new technologies and capabilities needed for future exploration, including eventual flights to Mars. It is also designed to establish American leadership and a strategic presence on the moon while expanding U.S. global economic impact and broaden commercial and international partnerships. Through these efforts NASA is looking to inspire a new generation and encourage careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields.
"[STEM career fields] are very important, and that is something that we talk to students about. Hopefully getting them excited and inspired to follow in our footsteps and do something in the STEM-related fields," Kimbrough said. "We have to get students excited about it so they can continue this incredible legacy our nation has at NASA."
Just prior to Col. Andrew Morgan's launch to the ISS on the historic 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, July 20, he noted the interesting contrast between Apollo being almost exclusively a U.S. lead effort, to the cooperative and international way space exploration is conducted today.
Kimbrough stressed the importance of the current cooperation between international partners to achieve future space missions.
"The international cooperation and private partnerships we have now are going to be critical to helping us accomplish our mission to have a sustainable presence on the moon and then go to Mars," Kimbrough said. "We are going to have to work with other countries and companies to make all this happen."
Kimbrough discussed Army astronauts' contributions to NASA's current and future exploration.
"All the things that Col. Morgan is doing on board, they are either helping people here on earth or helping us for future exploration," he said. "That's the same mantra I had when I was on the space station a few years ago and what Lt. Col. McClain just experienced as well."
Although NASA first landed humans on the moon 50 years ago, returning is not going to be as simple as just doing the same thing again with revived 50-year-old technology. Unlike the Apollo program, NASA plans to return humans to the moon and establish and sustain an enduring presence there with Gateway, a lunar orbit-based space station. Gateway will allow visiting crews to stay and conduct research, rest and make lunar landings or other deep-space voyages to Mars, etc.
"I don't know all the technical challenges there but it's definitely a good distance. We are about 250 miles at the most right now above the earth on the International Space Station. When we head out to the moon we are talking 240,000 miles," Kimbrough said. "Getting there and the orbital mechanics are things our teams are working through to make sure that we can get there safely and efficiently."
Another issue dealt with by Soldiers and astronauts alike is family separations resulting from long-duration missions.
"Families are obviously a huge part of everything we do here just like they are in the military. Separation in some ways is very similar in that you are just not around for extended periods of time," Kimbrough said. "It is a little bit different when you are going off the planet. I had the privilege to take the Morgan family over to launch and to be with them and see the stressors placed on them and help them through that. We have a great family support network here at NASA just like you do in most military units."
Although ultimately a decision for NASA leadership, Kimbrough offered some final thoughts about whether an Army astronaut might be the next human on the moon in 2024.
"It certainly is possible because Lt. Col. McClain is kind of in that window. She just recently returned, and we are going to be putting the first woman on the moon in 2024," Kimbrough said. "So timing-wise that could work out. Our leadership will work with NASA headquarters to figure out the correct crew to put on that first mission and get that first woman and next man on the moon in 2024."
Could McClain, Rubio or even Morgan when he returns from his current mission aboard the International Space Station be the astronaut who will take that next small step and giant leap?
Only time will tell. If so, it will be one very unique travel voucher.