As NASA races to launch humans back to the moon in five years — a program called Artemis, named after Apollo's sister — astronaut and aerospace engineer Jeanette Epps sees hope springing eternal.
Back in January 2018, NASA inexplicably bumped Epps off the main crew of a six-month mission to the International Space Station. Had Epps flown, she would have been the first African-American person to live and work aboard (though not visit) the floating laboratory. NASA has yet to explain its decision, apparently including to Epps herself.
"I don't know where the decision came from and how it was made, in detail, or at what level," Epps said during a festival that June, later adding it was not medically related. "There were Russians, several of them, who defended me in the sense that it's not safe to really remove someone from a crew that has trained together for years."
Then in August, the space agency announced its picks for the first Commercial Crew members: astronauts who'd get the glory of testing and flying SpaceX and Boeing's new private spaceships and spacesuits. Epps was not among those selected.
Any reasonable person might have called it quits, but in true astronaut form, Epps did not. If you ask her about any of this today, her answer is short, reflective, and resolute.
"Sometimes things don't go the way that you planned. But I'm still in the astronaut corps," she recently told "Business Insider Today," a top daily news show on Facebook.
NASA is looking to return people to the moon in 2024 with Artemis, starting with a $1.6 billion "down payment" to begin building lunar landers in 2020. Epps was, unsurprisingly, very supportive of the program: We spoke to her during an agency-led media tour on the eve of the Apollo 11 mission's 50th anniversary.
Still, a good amount of her energy seemed placed in the fact that she's one of only 13 women eligible to make a history-making trip.
"I think it is very beautiful that, 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters in May. "I have a daughter who is 11 years old, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role as the next women that go to the moon."
There's a decent chance that person could be Epps.
Epps said it would be 'mind-blowing' to be the first woman on the moon
Epps thinks there are many clear and logical reasons to go to the moon, not the least of which is to pick up where NASA's Apollo program of the 1960s and 1970s left off.
Only 12 people landed during the historic effort, at six different sites, and typically only for a day or two. The moon, meanwhile, has a surface area nearly four times as large as the US.
"A geologist once said to me, 'We went to the moon six times. If you had come to New York state six times, would you have thought that you investigated the whole world?'" Epps said. "We barely did anything there."
From a scientific standpoint, Epps says the moon is still hiding countless secrets about how Earth and the rest of solar system formed, and what fate our planet might face in the future.
She also noted the moon looks to be an increasingly valuable trove of resources, including frozen water. That ice could be melted, split into hydrogen and oxygen, and stored as rocket fuel.
"It can be a waypoint to getting to Mars," Epps said. "We can stop there and we refuel and go on to Mars."
Epps also says people themselves would be a priceless lunar resource if the world is truly interested in pursuing farther-flung space missions.
"There's a lot we need to learn about our human bodies," she said. "All of that information we learn, we're going to take it back to Mars. So it's for the future."
When asked what Epps would say if she was picked to be the first woman on the moon, she was at a loss for words.
"It's mind-blowing to think about being the first [woman] to step on this object that you see in the night sky," she said. "I would hope that my mission would inspire the next generation of women, of all engineers and all scientists to kind of propel us forward, even beyond Mars."
But Artemis may not get the funding it needs for a 2024 landing
NASA still doesn't know if it will secure enough money to pull off a crewed landing in five years — the first since Apollo 17 left the lunar surface in December 1972.
Bridenstine told CNN in June the program may cost the agency an additional $4 billion to $6 billion a year, on top of it's existing budget of about $22 billion, for a five-year program cost of up to $30 billion.
However, the agency has yet to release official details. Meanwhile, a key Democrat who leads the House committee that helps decide NASA's budget has also expressed skepticism about rushing to the moon in 2024. (The original plan called for a crewed landing in 2028, but the Trump administration moved the date up four years in early 2019.) Bridenstine has also alienated a senator important to funding the program, Ars Technica reported.
The program may be poised for change if the funding does not come through. In July, Pence told Major Garrett on the podcast "The Takeout" that "if our traditional partners can't do the job, we're going to look to the private space industry to give us the rockets and the technology to get there."
Those comments came days after Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and founder, said he could return people to the moon using his company's planned (though as yet unrealized) Starship launch system. Though being designed for Mars missions, SpaceX may trial the towering rocket ship on the moon.
"This is going to sound pretty crazy, but I think we could land on the moon in less than two years. Certainly with an uncrewed vehicle I believe we could land on the moon in two years," Musk told "CBS Sunday Morning" during a taped interview, the transcript of which was released in July. "So then maybe within a year or two of that we could be sending crew."
Epps said she'd take a ride on Starship if that's the system available for lunar missions.
"I would. I really do admire the work that SpaceX is doing. I admire the go-get-'em kind of attitude, and 'we're gonna be successful, and we're going to do it safely,'" Epps said. "We do things slowly in the government because we want to be super safe. And Elon Musk, he's doing things safely, but he's a lot faster."
"I think he's going to have something pretty interesting in the next couple of years," she added. "But we'll wait and see if he gets back to the moon before we do."