Victor Glover, astronaut: ‘The first person to go to Mars is already in school’

In 2024, the pilot will become the first Black man in history to ever fly to the moon. He spoke with EL PAÍS about the importance of the Artemis II space mission

Astronaut Victor Glover, in a photo from 2018.Photo: Bill Ingalls | Video: NASA

Victor Glover is the newly-named pilot for the Artemis 2 mission, which will journey to the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

The Californian will become the first Black man to travel to the Moon. Alongside him in the Orion space capsule will be Christina Koch – an astronaut, mathematician and physicist – who is the first woman ever enrolled in such a mission.

The other members of the mission are Jeremy Hansen – a Canadian, who is set to become the first non-American to fly to the Moon – and Reid Wilson, the mission commander, who, up until a few months ago, was head of the NASA Astronaut Corps.

It’s a mission that will go down in history. Glover knows how much it will mean to his country, to the Black community and to the rest of the world. So far, only 24 white men have traveled to our Moon.

“In the United States, we’re still divided… I hope that this mission can be an example of peace and cooperation between countries, but also between groups [within my country],” he explained in an interview conducted with EL PAÍS on Tuesday, April 4, via videoconference.

Glover, 46, is the son of a police officer and an accountant. He was the first in his family to go to university, where he studied engineering and science. He found his calling as a pilot in the United States Navy, where he participated in the Iraq War in 2003. He rose through the ranks to become a test pilot – the prelude to being an astronaut. Finally, in 2013, he completed his training. By 2020, he became the first African-American to make an extended stay on the International Space Station – the only inhabited human base beyond Earth.

The astronaut recalls that, in 1969, there was a large demonstration by the Black community at the Kennedy Space Center, from where the mission that would take the first man to the Moon was launched.

“Just today (April 4) marks the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The reverend who replaced him at the head of the [civil rights] coalition led the protests at the space center. But before takeoff, that same group ended up praying for the astronauts. Suddenly there was a change – they supported them. It’s a lesson in how we should think about this new mission,” says Glover. “Our society needs all the moments of reconciliation that we can give it.”

Back then, there was criticism about how NASA had spent billions of dollars to send humans to the Moon, while the Black community was poor and marginalized. This debate continues today. There are many people who wonder what’s the point of going to the Moon, when there are so many problems on Earth.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to respond to those criticisms,” Glover notes. “It’s true, we have a lot of problems. And many people are sick of hearing about the benefits of going to the Moon. On my way to work, I sometimes listen to Whitey on the Moon – a poem by Gil Scott-Heron. He speaks about problems that are important to listen to, such as how he can’t pay the rent and how his sister can’t find a doctor, [while the white boy goes to the Moon]. It reminds me that, sometimes, it’s important to listen.”

“[But] I can also put the problem in context,” he adds. “NASA’s annual budget is in the vicinity of $25 billion. And thinking about what that creates – the economic activity that it creates in academia and with our corporate partners and our partner nations – we develop somewhere between three and seven times the return… about $75 billion to several hundred billions of dollars of economic activity. So, sometimes it’s better to shut up and listen to people’s complaints… but I’m also aware of the huge economic return from space exploration.”

“This mission consumes a lot of money… but you have to put it in context. For example, every year Americans spend about $4 billion on chewing gum. [Healthcare] is expensive and everyone should have access to it, and NASA can’t fix all the problems in our societies… but the money we spend on space exploration can certainly improve many [pressing] problems.”

Glover will also be the first human to take command of the Orion capsule – the spacecraft designed to take astronauts to the Moon, Mars and beyond – during the Artemis 2 mission, which launches late next year. After takeoff – aboard the most powerful rocket in history – the four crew members, led by Reid Wiseman, will escape Earth’s gravity and remain in orbit. At this point, Glover’s most important moment in life will take place.

“This spacecraft is capable of taking us back and forth to the Moon on its own,” he explains. “But there are certain systems that we want to test first – especially those that will serve future missions on the Moon.”

Once the Orion capsule is in Earth’s orbit, the last part of the rocket will be floating near it. At that point, the pilot will take command of the vessel.

“We’ll split up from the last part of the rocket… I’ll turn the ship around to face it and we’ll make maneuvers, as if we’re going to dock with it.”

When it can be confirmed that all the systems are in perfect condition, the Orion will fire its rockets only once to leave the Earth. It will then travel more than 235,000 miles to the Moon and fly over its hidden face before beginning the return trip. The total voyage will last about 10 days, with the capsule’s software piloting the vessel – unless it becomes necessary for Glover to take command again.

The father of four daughters, the astronaut believes that the Artemis saga will continue for a long time.

“The first person to travel to Mars is alive today. [They’re] already in school. [These] kids will be the commanders of an Artemis [mission]. I think I’ll probably still be alive when that happens… it’ll be amazing to sit down with them and talk about what I learned on this mission.”

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