Jessica Watkins

By AFRO Staff

Maryland native Jessica Watkins is set to make history as the first Black woman to join an International Space Station crew.

Watkins, who now calls Colorado home, is set to deploy as a mission specialist on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in April 2022. She will spend the next six months living and conducting scientific research in the ISS microgravity laboratory as part of Crew-4—the fourth rotation of astronauts journeying to the space station on the SpaceX.

Watkins said in an interview that she grew up admiring trailblazers like Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, and she hopes her accomplishment will inspire another generation of Black girls to – literally – reach for the stars.

“I do hope that all young girls, especially young girls of color that are interested in STEM and interested in exploring space, feel empowered to do so,” Watkins told Colorado Public Radio last year. “I just hope young girls across the country feel that way now.”

According to The New York Times, only seven of the 249 people who have boarded the space station since its creation in 2000 were Black, including Victor Glover, a Navy commander and test pilot who, last year, became the first Black crew member in a regular long-duration mission at the station. 

Watkins completed her undergraduate studies at Stanford University. She then earned her doctorate in geology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), with a study on landslides on Mars and Earth

At NASA – where she was previously an intern – she worked at the Ames Research Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She was also a member of the science team that worked on the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which was launched in July 2020. 

“We’ll actually have an instrument that is going to start looking at the possibility of creating fuel from the resources that are available on the Martian surface,” she told CPR.

Watkins was named to NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017, and she told the Times becoming an astronaut was “something I dreamed about for a very long time ever since I was pretty little, but definitely not something I thought would ever happen.”

And Watkins is not averse to returning to space exploration after her current mission is completed, she told CPR. Given her longtime interest in the geology of the Red Planet, Watkins said she would “certainly” be interested in exploring Mars, “As long as we have a ride back.”

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