The next man to walk on the Moon could be an Iowan.
Only a dozen men have done so, the last one in 1972, but Cedar Falls native Raja Chari is among the 18 astronauts named to the new Artemis team which is setting its sights on our dusty, desolate neighbor some 239,000 miles away.
“The Artemis goal is to have people back on the Moon to stay by 2024,” Chari says. “We’ll have to build to that so there will be a mission prior to that to go around the Moon and test out the systems and then we’ll also continue to keep our presence on the space station, so there’s lots of different possibilities for me in the coming years.”
In a Radio Iowa phone interview from Johnson Space Center in Houston, the 41-year-old Air Force colonel acknowledges he -could- be the first man since the late Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 to step on foot on the Moon, but the modest Iowan is betting on his other NASA colleagues.
“It is, I guess, theoretically possible but I would put my money on someone else,” Chari says, laughing. “There’s much better qualified people in the office than me. That’s a great problem to have, to be working with people that, every single one of them, I’d say you should take them instead of me. That’s what I love about working here at Johnson and in our office, just the caliber of people.”
The first man who stepped off the lunar module onto the surface of the Moon, Neil Armstrong, uttered words in July of 1969 that practically everyone in the civilized world knows by heart: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Chari says he’s never considered what he would say when — and if — his turn comes to make his own bootprints on that far-away, gray world.
“One of the things we talk about here is, it’s not real until you’re actually there. Honestly, even if I was assigned to a mission, I don’t know that I’d really believe it until I was actually in space, and I wouldn’t really believe it until I was actually stepping foot on – somewhere,” he says. “I’m sure there will be plenty of suggestions out there. I’m sure there will be plenty of Iowans with great phrases and ideas but no, I haven’t seriously thought about it yet.”
Chari is named to be part of a NASA-SpaceX crew that will fly to the International Space Station next fall for a six-month mission in orbit.
He joined the astronaut corps in 2017, being among a dozen candidates picked out of 18,000 applicants. Chari has degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from the Air Force Academy and MIT. He served as a test pilot for the Air Force, helping develop America’s newest fighter jet, the F-35, and he flew combat missions over Iraq.
Perhaps as soon as next year, Chari will join the shortlist of seven other Iowa natives who have seen the Earth from orbit.