Two decades after the International Space Station became mankind’s permanent home in orbit, Jessica Watkins, a NASA astronaut, is poised to become the first black woman to join her crew on a long-term mission.
NASA announced on Tuesday that Watkins, a geologist who grew up in Lafayette, Colorado, will serve as a mission specialist for SpaceX’s next flight, known as Crew-4, to the space station. She will join two other NASA astronauts and an Italian astronaut on a six-month mission aboard the orbiting laboratory, scheduled to begin in April.
She added, “It was very important to me, and so if I can contribute in some way, it is definitely worth it.”
Only seven of the 249 people who have visited the space station since its inception in 2000 have been black. Victor Glover, Navy Commander and Test Pilot who joined NASA’s Astronaut Corps in 2013, became the first black crew member on a regular long mission to the station; his mission began last year. The six black astronauts who visited the space station before Glover were part of the space shuttle crews that stayed there for about 12 days.
In 1983, Guyon S. Bluford became the first black American to travel into space, and Mae Jamison was the first black woman to do so in 1992. In 1961, Ed Dwight, an Air Force pilot, was NASA’s first black intern astronaut. but he was not selected. In September, Sian Proctor, a member of the SpaceX Inspiration4 amateur astronaut mission, which entered orbit but not a space station, became the first black woman to pilot a spacecraft.
Janet Epps, a NASA astronaut, was originally supposed to be the first black woman to live and work on a space station in 2018. But she was replaced by another astronaut for reasons that NASA did not explain. She continues to have a six-month mission with the first operational astronaut crew to deliver a Boeing Starliner capsule to the station. But the development of this capsule is years behind schedule. This summer, a faulty set of valves found in the Starliner propulsion system prior to a bareboat test launch further postponed the Epps mission until late 2022.
Watkins graduated with an undergraduate degree from Stanford University and received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, studying landslides on Mars and Earth. She has worked with NASA science labs on projects including the Mars Curiosity rover mission and joined the astronaut corps in 2017. To become an astronaut, she said, was “what I have dreamed of for a very long time since childhood. but definitely not what I thought would ever happen. ”
“Space exploration outside of LEO is a tremendous effort and we need to be involved from all walks of life,” said Ken Bowersox, a senior official from NASA’s Space Operations Wing and a former astronaut, during an event last week, referring to: the agency’s goals beyond low earth orbit.
Watkins was preparing for a flight into space several months before being assigned to the team. She performed spacewalk simulations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and studied the ins and outs of the space station, a science laboratory the size of a football field 260 miles above Earth.
“I certainly haven’t forgotten that we arrived at this historic moment,” she said as the first black woman to complete a long mission. “This moment is not so important if we cannot focus on work and perform well.”