After being taken off a Russian spacecraft that was to fly into orbit two years ago that would have made her the first Black to live and work in space for an extended period, NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps will now join the first operational crew of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. The Starliner is a new private capsule built to ferry NASA astronauts in and out of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021.
The first African American to travel into space was Guion Bluford in 1983 and since then there have been many African Americans in space, some of whom helped build the ISS but none of them have been on prolonged missions or served as expedition members like Epps. However, the ISS has had over 200 astronauts on extended missions since 2000.
The Starliner mission will be the first spaceflight for Epps who graduated in 1992 from LeMoyne College in her hometown Syracuse, New York with a bachelor’s degree in physics. She proceeded to the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1994 where she did a master’s degree in science. She has a doctorate in aerospace engineering also from the University of Maryland.
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During her time as a Ph.D. student, Epps authored several journals and conference articles on her research as a NASA Graduate Student Researchers Project fellow. She went on to work in a research laboratory for more than two years after completing graduate school and co-authored many patents whiles there.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited her not long after her stint in the laboratory and she worked as a CIA technical intelligence officer for seven years before being selected as a member of the 2009 astronaut class, according to a press release by NASA.
Since the botched Russian spacecraft mission in 2018, there have been several speculations as to why Epps was taken off the crew and replaced with Serena Auñón-Chancellor. There have not been any formal statements explaining the swap.
“A number of factors are considered when making flight assignments,” NASA said in a statement. “These decisions are personnel matters for which NASA doesn’t provide information.”
Last year, Epps who was on the verge of creating history with the crew of Expedition 56 to become residents of the space station and spend up to six months conducting experiments and caring for the 20-year-old orbiting laboratory, spoke about her snub in a press conference in Berlin.
“It was a decision of my management, and it’s something that we’re going to try to continue to work through.”
She added that she was clueless as to who or why that decision was made but was confident it did not come from her fellow cosmonauts.
“I think I was able to develop really good working relationships with everyone there,” she said, referring to her training at Russian space facilities.
Boeing is developing NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and Epps’ new mission on Starliner-1 will be the first fully operational flight of Boeing’s new spacecraft, CNN reported.
Nonetheless, the Starliner will gain “NASA certification after a successful uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 and Crew Flight Test with astronauts” before Epps and her crew, NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada can launch into space.