NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins is preparing to make history as the first Black woman to embark on an extended mission in space.
This April, Watkins will launch to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that will lift off as part of the company's Crew-4 mission. Watkins, who is a part of NASA's Artemis program — an effort to return humans to the moon — will serve as a mission specialist, spending about six months living and working on the orbiting lab. This will be Watkins' first flight to space.
With this trip, Watkins will be the first Black woman to live in space for an extended mission.
"I think it's important to recognize this as a milestone for our agency and for our country, as well, to know that we are building on the foundation that was laid by the Black woman astronauts who've come before me," Watkins told NPR's Morning Edition. "I'm definitely honored to be a small part of that legacy, but ultimately be an equal member of the crew."
Now, Watkins is not the first Black woman to become a NASA astronaut. However, despite the agency's astronaut corps becoming more diverse since the days of Apollo, less than 10 of the approximately 250 people who have been to the ISS have been Black. It has been less than 30 years since, in 1992, former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to travel to space.
Since then, only three other Black women have flown to space: NASA astronauts Stephanie Wilson and Joan Higginbotham, and Inspiration4 astronaut Sian Proctor. Three other Black women — Yvonne Cagle, Jeanette Epps and Watkins — have been selected to join NASA's astronaut corps but have not yet flown to space.
Epps is slated to fly with Boeing's Starliner astronaut capsule to the space station. While she was chosen for the mission, called Starliner-1, in 2020, the launch date has been pushed from 2022 to March 2023.
With this mission, Watkins will launch alongside NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Robert Hines as well as European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. As part of her mission, she will observe and photograph geological features on Earth, she told NPR.
"We can look through the windows and take awesome pictures. And it allows us to track changes over time and to see features that we're not able to see from other assets that we have," Watkins said.
She will also, along with her crewmates, conduct a variety of science experiments in the fields of Earth and space science, biological science and even human physiology. As she told NPR, part of a mission like this involves the astronauts studying themselves. "We kind of become the lab rats ourselves ... to help us learn about the effects of long-duration spaceflight on humans, the physical effects, as well as the cognitive effects," she said.
"We are all coming together to accomplish this really hard thing that none of us would be able to do on our own," Watkins told NPR. "I think that is just such a beautiful picture of what we can all do if we come together and put all of our resources and skill sets together."
As Watkins is an astronaut with NASA's Artemis program as well as a geologist, she was asked about how she might feel about one day being on the moon and picking up moon rocks herself.
"We've looked at lots of images and even looked at samples that the Apollo astronauts brought back," she told NPR. "But to be able to be a real field geologist on the surface of another planet would just be unreal."