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Walking on the moon: WCU geology professor helps prepare for NASA test mission

Amy Fagan, left, working in NASA's science evaluation room.
Photo courtesy of NASA.
Two people with NASA badges sit at a table in a room in a white board and another person with a laptop working in the background at a podium.
Amy Fagan, left, working in NASA's science evaluation room.

More than five decades have passed since Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind” by setting foot on the moon. Now a NASA test team, including a Western Carolina University professor, is working to prepare the Artemis III mission to put astronauts back on the moon’s surface. Geology associate professor Amy Fagan is part of a team prepping for the first human-landing mission in 50 years.

“This has been a very eye-opening experience to see all that goes into these missions,” said Fagan in a press release. “I am thrilled that I was able to be part of the big return of NASA’s human-landing missions.”

The Artemis mission has three stages. Artemis I arrived back on Earth in December 2022. Right now, NASA is putting together the components of the rocket for Artemis II and testing for Artemis III. During the final stage of the mission, astronauts will explore the lunar South Pole region, which has never been touched by humans before.

The test team has been getting ready for the mission through planning and even conducted a simulation of walking on the moon conducted at the S P Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona. The crater is a cinder cone that is part of the more than 600 volcanoes in the San Francisco Volcanic Field. That’s where Fagan comes in.

“We did a lot of virtual prep-work over the summer,” said Fagan in a press release. “We mapped out the crater and decided on our scientific objectives and gave the information to NASA who then connected the dots for us as far as how quickly the astronauts could get from one area to the other collecting samples.”

The work allowed NASA to test what resources and tools the crew will need on the moon. The Apollo missions in previous years focused on the near side of the moon, which can be seen from Earth. By comparison, the Artemis mission focuses on the lunar South Pole which is shrouded in shadows —an entirely new landscape for NASA astronauts to explore.

“We were learning how to best support the astronauts on the surface of the moon and define where they will be going when they land,” said Fagan in a press release. “We have much better technology and higher resolution images than we did 50 years ago, so that helps us pinpoint where the astronauts are going.”

Fagan explained that the crew worked in the night to get experience in the darkness.

“With the crew experiencing conditions like they will on the moon, this allowed us to make changes when necessary to collection sites and also our objectives. The prep work over the summer allowed us to make quick and informed decisions when we needed to make a change in direction,” said Fagan in a press release.

The Artemis III mission, which plans to be the first mission to put a woman and a person of color on the moon, is expected to be completed in 2025.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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