Astronaut Jeanette Epps will make history as the first black woman to live and work with a crew in space.
By Monica Luhar
It was always her dream to one day go up in space.
Little did astronaut Jeanette Jo Epps know she’d be making history while doing it.
In August, NASA named Epps, who turned 50 on November 3, to NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission, which marks the first operational crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).
The mission, expected to launch in 2021, will mark Epps’ first space expedition while also making her the first African-American female astronaut to live and work onboard the ISS in a crewed flight for a six-month duration.
“I think many people dream of becoming an astronaut, most, however, never pursue it. My life has been geared toward it indirectly with the hope of becoming a viable candidate. However, it wasn’t until Spring ’08 that, because of the encouragement of a close friend, I realized that I would be a viable candidate and that I should apply,” Epps said in a NASA interview.
Epps will be joining NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada on a six-month long mission to the ISS. The flight will follow strict protocol and NASA certification after a successful uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 and Crew Flight Test with astronauts.
Shortly after the flight announcement, Epps tweeted out her excitement for joining the expedition with her NASA colleagues:
“I’m super excited to join Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada on the first operational Boeing crew mission to the International Space Station. I’ve flown in helicopters with Sunita flying and I’ve flown in the backseat of a T-38 with Josh flying, and they are both wonderful people to work with. So, I’m looking forward to the mission,” she tweeted.
Former NASA astronaut Mae Carol Jemison became the first black woman to travel in space after being selected to NASA’s astronaut program in June 1987. She was followed by astronaut Stephanie Wilson, while Joan Higginbotham was the third black woman to venture into space.
While this will be Epps’ first space expedition, it is not her first mission. In 2017, NASA assigned Epps to be a flight engineer to the International Space Station in mid-2018 for Expeditions 56 and 57.
She would have become the first African-American space station crew member, the first African American to launch aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicle, and the 15th African American to fly in space. But in January 2018, NASA ended up backtracking on its decision for reasons unknown.
But now Epps is back in action and is slated to make history through her first spaceflight to the International Space Station.
The Path to Space
The inspiration for a career in space exploration was embedded in Epps as a child. She was born in Syracuse, New York, as one of seven children to Henry and Luberta (née Jackson) Epps, Mississippians who moved to Syracuse as part of the Great Migration.
She and her twin sister, Janet, both excelled in math and science, and when Epps was 9-years-old, it was her brother who inspired her to pursue a career in space.
“My older brother came home from school at Rochester Institute of Technology when I was 9 and he took a look at my sister’s and my grades. He said, ‘Wow, you guys are doing great. You can be anything you want to be, an astronaut, whatever,’” she told a group of students, as reported by The Star Telegram.
But the journey to getting there wasn’t always a linear path; Epps dabbled in several different careers before becoming an astronaut for NASA.
She previously worked for Ford Motor Company, where she was responsible for research surrounding automobile collision detection and other systems that led to the success of a provisional patent and a U.S. Patent for her research. She also worked at the Central Intelligence Agency for seven years as a Technical Intelligence Officer before becoming an astronaut with NASA and working in the ISS Operations Branch to troubleshoot issues to support space station crews.
She received her Bachelor of Science in Physics at LeMoyne College, and her Master of Science and Doctorate of Philosophy in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland.
In 2008, Epps had a conversation with a friend who encouraged her to apply to the Astronaut Corps. In an interview with Parentology, Epps said, “I never thought that they’d actually select me, but they did.”
In 2009, Epps was selected as one of 9 members of the 20th NASA astronaut class.
“I was truly shocked because of the caliber of people I met during the interview process,” she said upon hearing that she was chosen. “I met some of the most amazing inspirational people. It is a huge honor to have been selected!
During her graduate school career, Epps served as a NASA fellow and wrote many journal and conference articles discussing her research.
“Her graduate research involved extensive testing of composite swept‐tip beams, comparative analysis of analytical models and experimental data for shape memory alloys and the application of shape memory alloy actuators for tracking helicopter rotor blades,” according to NASA.
Inspiring Future Astronauts
Epps knows all too well the importance of encouraging students who are interested in STEM and other career avenues to follow their dreams, no matter the hurdles.
She was recently invited to speak to youth at Weatherford High School about her experience as an astronaut and her excitement about the upcoming NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman on the moon by 2024.
Epps told students about the training she received at NASA, as well as her previous career path. She also shared her excitement as one of 13 female astronaut candidates that could be the first woman to land on the moon.
“You never know, as long as you’re in the program. That would be fantastic…It would be otherworldly,” Epps told students, as reported by The Star Telegram.
She explained that a historic trip to the moon could help uncover more answers about the Earth and the solar system. “It can be a way point to getting to Mars. We can stop there and we refuel and go on to Mars,” Epps told Business Insider in an interview.
When she’s not researching or thinking about space, Epps’s earthly hobbies include scuba diving and reading. “Other hobbies that I have, when I am not working, include traveling, reading, and trying as many new things as I can!”
NASA has had many interesting developments and upcoming projects like Asthros and Euclid, and others underway. For astronauts currently in space, many were able to safely cast their vote from the ISS in time for the 2020 presidential election. Astronaut Kate Rubins tweeted, “From the International Space Station: I voted today — Kate Rubins.”
In 2016, the film, Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, shed light on the importance of STEAM as well as workplace discrimination, segregation, and other barriers that faced African-American female mathematicians and engineers. Many African Americans in STEM played an important role in the space program at NASA and helped shape the future of space exploration.
Representation and diverse leadership in STEM are key. The UPS recently posted a report discussing the need for more black women in STEM leadership: “Without a stronger commitment globally to diversity and inclusion in STEM, companies will continue to miss out on—or lose—talent that could bolster their business performance, and ultimately, their bottom lines.”
According to Catalyst, in 2017, 11.5 percent of science and engineering employees in the US were women of color. Currently, only 17 African-American astronauts represent NASA.
While women of color have been historically underrepresented in STEM, Epps is committed to moving the needle.
“The NASA mission has always inspired me because I have a great desire to help further our understanding of the world we live in and the universe,” she said in a NASA interview. “I pursued a career in science and technology in an effort to contribute. I also have a desire to encourage young students to pursue careers in science and help contribute because I believe everyone can help and has a part to play!”
With Epps sets to make history on the International Space Station in 2021, as well as potentially becoming the first woman to set foot on the moon, the sky’s the limit for African-American innovations in STEM from earth and beyond.