Five of the astronauts who will participate in the Artemis missions, from left, Jessica Meir, Joe Acaba, Anne McClain, Matthew Dominick, and Jessica Watkins, are introduced by Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday during a meeting of the National Space Council at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral , Fla. Associated Press/John Raoux

Maine astronaut Jessica Meir could be headed to the moon.

The Caribou native was among the 18 candidates that NASA announced on Wednesday for the first human missions to orbit and land on the moon in nearly 50 years, although flight assignments will be made later. Half of the elite group that will begin the training are women, and the eventual crew will include the first woman to step on the moon. The White House directed the space program to return astronauts there by 2024 and establish a sustainable human lunar presence by the end of the decade.

Meir has already participated in a nearly seven-month mission at the International Space Station, where she was part of the first all-female spacewalk. She joined four other astronauts from the team for a news conference Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where she addressed the historic nature of the upcoming mission.

“To us, it really isn’t a personal achievement,” Meir said. “It is paying homage and tribute to the generations of women and other minorities that really were the boundary pushers, that truly broke those glass ceilings to let us be here today. The great thing is for us now is that is just normal. We are all going to go together to the moon, and we’re going to go as a team. The fact that that is just a thing that’s part of everything we do now shows how far we’ve come, and that’s really thanks to those generations before us.”

Twelve NASA astronauts have walked on the moon, but the last mission there was the Apollo 17 in 1972. The Artemis program is named for Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology and will begin uncrewed test flights as soon as next year. NASA has 47 active astronauts.

“It is amazing to think that the next man and first woman on the moon are among the names that we just read,” Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “The Artemis Team astronauts are the future of American space exploration – and that future is bright.”

If she is chosen to walk on the moon, Meir, 43, will be achieving a childhood dream. Her family, friends and teachers remember her early interest in space. She has said she isn’t sure of the source – maybe the clear view of the stars from Aroostook County or the shuttle launches she watched on TV – but she repeated a story Wednesday that is now famous in Maine.

“When I was in the first grade, our teacher asked us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up,” Meir said. “I drew that kind of iconic image of the Apollo era of an astronaut in a space suit, standing on the surface of the moon next to an American flag.”

Maine natives Jessica Meir and Chris Cassidy spent eight days together on the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA

Meir earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s degree in space studies and a doctorate in marine biology. Her research focused on the physiology of animals in extreme environments. She was chosen as an astronaut in 2013 and spent six years training before her first mission to the International Space Station. She returned in April after 205 days in space and 3,280 orbits of Earth.

During that mission, Meir and fellow NASA astronaut Christina Koch completed the first all-female spacewalk to replace a battery charger. They ultimately conducted three spacewalks together, totaling 21 hours, 44 minutes outside the space station. Koch was also named to the Artemis Team. Before her departure, Meir also overlapped for eight days with astronaut Chris Cassidy, another native Mainer who grew up in York.

On the space station, Meir also worked to support about 250 experiments, including research that could allow bio-artificial organs and tissues to be made in space and used for organ transplants on Earth. She said Wednesday that she is excited about the scientific opportunities on the moon.

“If you look at the scientific experiments that were conducted on the Apollo missions, they changed the way that we see our solar system,” Meir said. “And we are still to this day learning from those very samples, using newer technologies all the time, but there is still so much yet to discover.”

Among the goals of the Artemis program is to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon and to prepare for future missions to Mars. Considering those long-term plans, a reporter asked Meir how long she would be willing to stay on the moon.

“At the end of my 205 days at the Space Station, I was not ready to leave,” she said. “If it were up to me, I would have stayed there. … When we are up there going on these missions, time passes very quickly. We are in this whole novel atmosphere with so many exciting opportunities around us, so much to discover and so much to do that for me it just flew by. I think it’s going to be exactly true, maybe even more so, when we get all the way to the moon. We’re going to have so much to do. We’re going to have so many people to not let down. We’re going to be there for as long as the mission dictates.”

Jessica Meir, shortly after the landing of the Russian Soyuz MS-15 space capsule near the town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on April 17. Roscosmos Space Agency via Associated Press

“Years?” the reporter asked.

Meir looked at the astronauts on the stage with her before she answered.

“Sure, yeah,” she said. “Absolutely. When we start talking about this first mission to Mars, it would probably be a three-year mission, the way it’s looking right now. I would be ready to do that when the team has it all designed and ready to go.”

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