WASHINGTON – Mercury. Gemini. Apollo.
In choosing Apollo's twin sister – and Greek goddess of the moon – as the name of the lunar return program, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it's important to showcase women's past and future contributions to the space program.
"How perfect is that?" he said during an interview with USA TODAY. "We have this diverse astronaut corps where we can actually send the first woman to the moon and name it after the twin sister of Apollo. I've been trying to communicate as much as possible to as many people who will listen that we are now the Artemis Generation."
Though not as fast as some would like, the space agency has been transitioning from male bastion to diverse workplace for decades.
Roughly a third of space shuttle program astronauts were women. The first civilian chosen for a mission was teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died when space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. Women have occupied leadership positions in the agency, though all 21 acting and Senate-confirmed administrators have been men.
Vice President Mike Pence's announcement during a National Space Council meeting in March that a woman would be part of the first team of astronauts to walk on the moon elevated the goal. Two months later, NASA announced that its lunar return program would bear the name of Artemis – twin sister of Apollo, whose name graced the first lunar missions.
NASA’s plans call for a lunar landing in 2028 although the Trump administration asked for extra money in next year's budget to accelerate the mission to 2024.
President Donald Trump cast doubt on those plans Friday, tweeting, “For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago.”
For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon - We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 7, 2019
It's been nearly 47 years since the last human walked on the lunar surface.
"When the last person walked the moon in 1972, there was no opportunity for a woman to participate," said Janet Kavandi, a three-time shuttle astronaut who directs NASA's John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
"The Artemis Generation changes that," she wrote in a column for USA TODAY. "Our nation must take the next giant leap so long promised. As a female astronaut, I followed pioneers like Sally Ride to space and helped solidify their gains. Women’s next frontier will be the moon."
Ride became the first American woman in space, when she launched with four crewmates aboard Challenger in 1983.
Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 that brought the first men to the moon, said it's easy to understand why women were "shortchanged" in the early days of the space program.
President Dwight Eisenhower's decision to pluck astronauts from a narrow pool of military pilots meant women were excluded automatically.
"But I think those days are clearly over. I think women definitely have an equal part with men," said Collins, who has two daughters. "In my book, women are every bit as capable as men."
John Logsdon, who founded the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said NASA has done a good job since Apollo to recognize gender equity. About half of new astronaut recruits are women, he said.
"I think it's in the natural order of things," he said. "In a sense, NASA is ahead of the curve in giving equal treatment between male and female."
Bridenstine said NASA's emphasis on female equality is personal to him. He wants to make sure his 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, has "every opportunity" to envision herself as an astronaut if that's what she wants to do.
"The astronauts today are not the same as the astronauts of the 1960s," he said. "This time, when we go to the moon, were taking all of America with us."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Artemis Generation: NASA emphasizes role of women as it prepares for a return to the moon