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To the Stars

UMD Engineering Grad Will Be First Black Woman to Become Space Station Crew Member

By Chris Carroll

Epps Helmet

Courtesy of NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Epps

Soon after Jeanette J. Epps M.S. ’94, Ph.D. ’00 lifts off aboard a Russian rocket in May 2018, she’ll become the first African-American astronaut as well as the first UMD graduate to live and work as a crewmember on the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA announced in early January that Epps would serve as a flight engineer for part of ISS Expedition 56 and remain on board for Expedition 57. Expeditions aboard the ISS, which circles the earth every 90 minutes at an altitude of about 250 miles, last for several months.

Epps has been training around the world for the mission, learning skills ranging from winter survival in case of a emergency landing to operating the Russian space capsule used to travel to and from the station. The ISS mission will be her first spaceflight.

Her path into space began as a young girl growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., in the late ‘70s, when the first American women were selected to become astronauts. Her brother planted the idea, she told Terp in a 2015 interview.

“When I was about 9 years old, I specifically recall him coming home from college, and after we discussed my math and science grades, he exclaimed, ‘You could be an aerospace engineer or an astronaut too, if you wanted to!’” she said. “This was the year Sally Ride and several other women were selected to be astronauts. Those words left a lasting impression in my heart and my mind.”

After receiving her master’s degree and doctorate in aerospace engineering from Maryland, she worked for Ford Motor Company, then spent several years as a technical intelligence officer for the CIA. Then a friend who’d joined the astronaut program, Leland Melvin, helped reignite her childhood dream and convinced her to apply to NASA. She succeeded in becoming an astronaut in 2009.

“At some point in my late 30s, I said, OK, I’ve prepared myself for this,” she said. “And here I am.”

As one of only two black female astronauts, Epps told Terp she wants to expand the universe of possibilities for African-American girls interested in science and technology.

“I was raised in a way that there was really nothing I thought I couldn’t do. The fact that I never saw anyone who looked like me doing this didn’t really matter to me, but I think it does matter to a lot of young girls,” she said. “So I do want to send them the message that if I’m doing this, there’s no reason you can’t do this too.”

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