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Astronaut slated to become first black woman to stay long-term on space station

From left, NASA astronaut Robert Hines; ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti; and NASA astronauts Jessica Watkins and Kjell Lindgren. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

A couple of space rookies are joining a couple of veterans on a trip to the International Space Station this week, but one of them will open a new door of diversity as the first black woman assigned for long-term duty on board.

Jessica Watkins, 33, is heading the ISS for her first trip to space as part of the Crew-4 mission set to launch on a new SpaceX Crew Dragon named Freedom. Liftoff from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39-A is set for Saturday at 5:26 a.m.

Watkins arrived at the former shuttle landing facility at KSC on Monday with crewmates Commander Kjell Lindgren and pilot Bob Hines of NASA as well as European Space Agency mission specialist Samantha Cristoforetti.

SpaceX Crew-4 astronauts Robert Hines and Jessica Watkins chat during their arrival at Kennedy Space Center, on April 18, 2022. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

“We get to be the representatives, the kind of tip of the spear if you will, of an enormous team of people,” Watkins said. “For me, I am just really honored to be part of the long legacy of black astronauts and black women astronauts who came before me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a small part in that toward an exciting future as well.”

The first black woman in space, Mae Jemison, flew on STS-47 on board Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. Two others, Stephanie Wilson and Joan Higginbotham were members of space shuttle missions to the ISS, but did not join the crews for long-term stays.

Watkins, a geologist, joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017, and worked previously with the Mars Curiosity rover team. She’s also one of 18 of the astronaut corps named to NASA’s Artemis program that could one day send her to the moon.

The Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule for Artemis I is currently sitting on Launch Pad 39-B less than 2 miles from where Watkins and her crewmates will blast off on their mission.

“We see such an exciting future for NASA. We talk about all the different programs that we have in line, thinking about SLS being on the launch pad, it’s just super exciting thinking about that future,” she said.

Watkins said her path to become an astronaut has meant finding inspiration since her childhood in people such as Jemison.

“For me, really growing up having mentors and heroes of mine that were contributing in ways that I aspire to contribute, and in a role that I aspire to participate in, that was certainly meaningful to me insomuch as I’m able to return the favor.”

More than 50 Americans have already been part of the ISS long-term expeditions. She will become the first black woman to do so but won’t be the last. NASA had previously chosen astronaut Jeanette Epps to be a member of the first operational crewed mission of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner but her trip to space is awaiting certification of that vehicle.

Watkins technically could be among the first astronauts to be inside the Starliner in space, since an uncrewed version is set to dock with the ISS on a test flight next month. NASA said the plan is for the hatch to open, so the Crew-4 astronauts could board if they choose to do so.

Watkins, though, said is most looking forward to getting distinct views of the Earth. She got a bachelor’s in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford and a doctorate in Geology from UCLA. Her Ph.D. research focused on large landslides on Mars and Earth using orbital imagery.

“As a geologist, that’s my background, I’m super excited for the opportunity to just observe the Earth and kind of use the unique vantage point, the unique perspective that we can get from the ISS to be able to observe geologic features and processes,” she said.

Her crewmates, who have nicknamed her “Watty,” said they’re going to take her skillset to task.

“Watty has no idea how annoying we’re going to be,” said Lindgren, who along with Cristoforetti have had one previous trip each to the space station. “It’s so amazing to look out of the cupola, to look at the ground, the see the Earth, and constantly be wondering ‘How did that happen?’ … now we have our own crew geologist that we’re going to be calling to the window constantly. I know she says she’s going to be happy to do it, but I think we’re going to test her patience.”

First-time fliers Watkins and Hines are part of the astronaut class that graduated in 2019 after two years of training, and who refer to themselves as “The Turtles.” That class also includes a couple of members of the Crew-3 astronauts currently on station awaiting their arrival.

“We are super excited to be able to learn from them,” Watkins said. “We each have our own expertise, we each have our own individual experiences and backgrounds that we bring to the table.”


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