Jeanette Epps will board the International Space Station in May 2018 as the first African-American crew member.
During her six-month space mission, the aerospace engineer from Syracuse, New York, will conduct research and perform experiments that will build toward NASA’s journey to Mars.
Epps said she is looking forward to working in zero gravity: “Once you take [gravity] away, you can see the real nature of things,” she said. She said that scientists have already learned about genetics and cell structure from experiments in zero-gravity.
It will be her first spaceflight.
Epps never imagined going to space. But when she was 9 years old, her older brother glanced at her report card. “You can be an aerospace engineer, a doctor, maybe even an astronaut — they’ve selected women,” he told her. NASA had just announced Sally Ride would be America’s first woman in space.
Epps laughed and said she thought it would be impractical. “But I can definitely become an aerospace engineer,” she said. That she did, completing her doctorate degree at the University of Maryland in 2000. After a stint as a researcher at Ford Motor Company, and work with the government, Epps felt she had what it takes to go to space.
Out of nearly 3,500 applicants, Epps was selected as one of 14 candidates in NASA’s 2009 class of astronauts.
Epps’ arrival at the International Space Station will build on a legacy of black women astronauts. In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space, flying a mission on the space shuttle Endeavour. Joan Higginbotham and Stephanie Wilson flew missions to help construct the International Space Station. A new film, Hidden Figures, explores NASA’s pioneering African-American mathematicians, who helped the space agency achieve some of its greatest milestones.
Before her 2018 flight, Epps will train continuously. She has already completed training in spacewalks, robotics, jet flight, geology and Russian language.
She said she hopes to help young people discover their potential in science and mathematics like she did.
“Anything that you don’t know is going to be hard at first,” she said. “But if you stay the course and put the time and effort in, it will become seamless eventually.”