This Mars-Studying Scientist May Be the First Woman to Walk on the Moon

NASA plans to go back to the moon—but unlike the Apollo missions of a half-century ago, the agency’s Artemis program is designed to send humans on longer-duration journeys, to land at the lunar south pole, and potentially even to build and populate a base there. The first crewed landing could take place as early as the mid-2020s. Last December the space agency announced the 18 astronauts who are working to make Artemis a reality; Jessica Watkins, who joined the astronaut corps in 2017, is among them. As a planetary geologist and a former member of the science team for NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, Watkins is a leading candidate for future lunar missions and could become the first woman and first person of color to walk on the moon. Scientific American spoke to Watkins about Artemis, why the moon, and why to send humans at all. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Why is it important to send people to the moon? What draws you to it, personally?

There are a lot of different reasons to go back—scientific, economic, you name it—but one for me is this idea of having something we can all engage with that brings us together. After the past year we’ve had—as a country, as a world—to have something positive that we can all support is really important. And there’s still a lot to be learned about and from the moon. Going to a different landing site than we did in the Apollo days, bringing upgraded technologies there—that will really increase our knowledge and understanding of the moon, Earth and the solar system as a whole.

You used to work on the Curiosity Mars rover, so you know this all too well: Some people want to skip the moon in favor of going straight to Mars. What might convince them otherwise?

Mars was my first love, for sure. And going back to the moon serves as a stepping-stone to help us get toward Mars. So it’s not an either-or. One of the really interesting things about going to the lunar south pole is that because of the orbital dynamics and geometry, you end up with these permanently shadowed regions there. And in these [areas], you have access to craters with the potential to have preserved volatiles—things like water ice—that are obviously very interesting from a scientific standpoint but also can be used as resources as we start to think about building a lunar base.

Why not just send robots?

This question of “robots versus humans” is similar to the “moon versus Mars” conversation, in the sense that they build on each other and it is not a mutually exclusive situation at all. We need both. Sending robots is cheaper and easier in the sense that you don’t have a [human] in the loop. In human interplanetary exploration, we can send robots out before we arrive, to help us decide on a landing site, to give us preliminary data to drive our scientific questions that we’ll then have humans go out and try to answer. [But] based on my experience with Curiosity, a rover is just much slower. Whereas a human being—as soon as we step onto a surface, we can get to work almost instantaneously, making decisions about where to go to find answers to questions.

Every Apollo astronaut was a white man in his 30s or 40s. Why is the diversity of Artemis’s astronauts important?

It’s important that the Artemis team be diverse, first of all, because a diverse team is a strong team. The astronaut corps (as well as all of NASA) is made up of people with diverse skill sets, strengths, backgrounds and experiences—and relying on each of those individuals’ expertise will enable the collective success of the Artemis missions. The whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also important because representation does matter. It was absolutely beneficial to me as a young girl to have role models to look up to who looked like me and for them to go before me and create a path for me to pursue my dreams. I hope that the Artemis team can do that for the next generation of explorers and inspire them to follow their dreams as well.

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