January 2017 has been a very good month for the American space program. First there was the premiere of the movie Hidden Figures, which celebrates the incredible minds and achievements of NASA legends Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Now, on the heels of the film’s release, NASA has announced that Jeanette J. Epps will soon become the first African-American crewmember of the International Space Station (ISS).
Epps has been working toward this moment for a very long time, from her doctorate in physics and aerospace engineering to a seven-year stint as a technical intelligence officer with the CIA [PDF]. She joined NASA in 2009 as part of the agency’s 20th class of astronauts, and has been working on the ground to support existing ISS missions ever since.
Epps is scheduled to depart in May 2018, two months after her colleague Andrew Feustel, as part of a six-month expedition. “Each space station crew brings something different to the table, and Drew and Jeanette both have a lot to offer," NASA Astronaut Office chief Chris Cassidy said in a statement.
To date, 14 African American astronauts have made the trip into space. Several of those have visited the ISS as part of technical and resupply missions, but none have stayed aboard.
Black women have been a vital part of NASA missions since the very beginning. The brilliant mathematicians and engineers known as the West Area Computers [PDF] were instrumental in early space voyages, while astronauts like Mae Jemison, Joan Higginbotham, and Stephanie Wilson [PDF] have helped expand our knowledge of this spectacular universe.
In a video celebrating the release of Hidden Figures, Epps offers brief but solid advice to young women considering careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
For more updates, follow Jeanette on Twitter @Astro_Jeanette.