The astronauts vying to be the first woman on the moon
Nasa is expected to name the first female astronaut to fly to the Moon on Monday as part of its plan to land a woman on the lunar surface for the first time.
Riding aboard the most powerful rocket ever built, four astronauts are set to be selected to perform a lunar flyby in November 2024, flying farther than anyone since the Apollo programme of the 1960s and 1970s as part of Artemis II.
The mission is intended to pave the way for Artemis III, the 2025 mission which will return people to the Moon for the first time since 1972.
A woman is expected to be included on both missions for the first time in history, with nine female astronauts being considered.
Among those believed to be frontrunners are Anne McClain, a veteran Iraq War pilot who played rugby in the UK, and Kayla Barron, a Cambridge graduate who served on nuclear submarines.
Ms McClain, 43, played rugby in the English Women’s Premiership while studying at the University of Bath, later going on to represent the United States.
She credits the sport with teaching her the “grit, toughness and mental focus” required of an astronaut.
Ms McClain’s playing career was interrupted by war, however, and she flew 216 combat missions over Iraq instead of competing in the 2006 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
She was selected as a Nasa astronaut in 2013 and has already spent more than 200 days in space.
Ms Barron, 33, has also already flown in space.
She took a Master’s degree in nuclear engineering at Cambridge, where she studied a concept for a next-generation reactor.
Before becoming an astronaut in 2017, she blazed a trail as one of the first women to serve on a US navy submarine.
There are a number of other impressive women also in the running.
Christina Koch has been a Nasa astronaut since 2013 and has already flown several missions to the International Space Station. She is the current record holder for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, spending 328 days in orbit.
Before becoming an astronaut she worked as an electrical engineer at Nasa, and spent time living in Antarctica as a researcher in a remote station.
Speaking after she returned from the ISS last year, she said being chosen to fly to the moon would be “an incredible honour”.
“We have to answer humanity’s call to explore,” she told US broadcaster NBC.
Stephanie Wilson has more than 20 years of experience as a Nasa astronaut, flying on three Space Shuttle missions to the ISS between 2006 and 2010, becoming only the second Black woman to fly to space.
Ms Wilson has been an astronaut for longer than any of the other astronauts - male or female - picked for the 18-strong Artemis team.
At 56, if she were picked to walk on the lunar surface, she would become the oldest person to have walked on the Moon, breaking a record set by a 47-year-old Alan Shepard in 1971.
Jessica Meir first dreamed of being an astronaut at the age of five. Forty years later, she has already logged more than 200 days in orbit.
“We were asked to draw a picture of what we want to be when we grow up, and I distinctly remember drawing an astronaut in a spacesuit standing on the surface of the moon next to the American flag,' she said in 2021.
Ms Meir took part in a landmark 2019 spacewalk, which was the first to feature an all-women crew.
Asked how it would feel to be the first woman to walk on the moon, Ms Meir said: “I would be incredibly excited and fortunate to be that first woman on the moon.
“I'd have to think long and hard about what my first words would be upon stepping on the lunar surface.”
Prior to becoming an astronaut, Ms Meir worked as a marine biologist studying animals in extreme environments.
The other four women with a shot at making history include: Jessica Watkins, at 34 the youngest member of the group who flew to the ISS in April last year; Kate Rubins, a pioneering biologist who has spent nearly 13 hours on spacewalks; Jasmin Moghbeli, a pilot who flew with the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan; and Nicole Mann, another former Marine Corps pilot.
On the possibility of being chosen as the first woman to walk on the lunar surface, Ms Mann has said: “Yes, you want to be the first person to walk on the moon, you want to fulfil that role, but really it's not about you.
“It's about the bigger mission, so you're just excited to support in whatever role you can.”
Nasa is notoriously tight-lipped about how it selects its astronauts. However, Reid Wiseman, the former head of Nasa’s astronaut office who has been tipped as a possible commander for the Artemis II mission, said: “We pride ourselves on expeditionary behaviour: 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.
“That’s really what we’re looking for in those first Artemis missions. Technical expertise. Team player.”
Meanwhile, Britain’s Rosemary Coogan, will begin training in Germany on Monday ahead of joining the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps.
The 31-year-old former Royal Navy reservist will learn about the effects of space travel on the human body, as well as undergo survival training.
Nasa has said there will be at least three places for European astronauts on future Artemis missions but none are set to be among those announced in the crew lineup on Monday.