Black female astronaut emerges after nearly two-year absence following unexplained removal from space flight
By Erick Johnson
It’s been nearly two years since NASA pulled its Black female Astronaut Jeanette Epps from a space flight without giving a full explanation.
On October 18, NASA made headlines after completing its first all-female spacewalk that included astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. The two completed a five-hour mission to replace a battery charge/discharge unit without the presence of a male astronaut.
Two weeks prior to that historic flight, NASA on October 4, posted a YouTube video interview of Epps. It’s an interview that seems awkward at times as Epps, with little emotion, describes her training in Slovenia in Central Europe. There, Epps trained for five nights and six days in the NASA’s CAVES program, where she learned to rappel down caves, live in them and conduct research.
“We learned a bunch of techniques on how to get in and out of caves,” Epps says in the interview. “We tried on our gear and we made sure everything fit.
“We explored the cave as an underground world that is so strange and so beautiful at the same time; but one of the big things is that the fear of getting hurt was a constant threat,” Epps said.
Epps said the training helped prepare her for a mission on the moon, “where we have to work together in a high-threat environment as a group.”
NASA aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2024 as part of its Artemis mission. The goal of Artemis is to explore the moon’s surface and eventually be able to establish a permanent presence on the moon.
Epps is hoping to become the first female astronaut Black or white to go to the moon. Epps in an interview on YouTube said NASA will inform her in 2022 of whether she will be chosen for the historic flight.
An aerospace engineer and former CIA analyst, Epps became a NASA astronaut in 2009.
She was scheduled to fly in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but NASA in January 2018, abruptly pulled Epps from the June flight mission without an explanation. Epps was replaced by fellow astronaut Serena Aunon-Chancellor. The mission would have been Epps’ first and she would have been the first Black astronaut to live on the ISS.
Suspicions swirled after Epps said she did not have medical or family problems that would have prevented her from going on the mission. She said she had passed all of her exams and training for the mission.
NASA has pulled astronauts from missions in last-minute decisions before, but Epps’ brother, Henry Epps, in a now deleted Facebook post accused NASA of racism after his sister was pulled from the flight.
“My sister Dr. Jeanette Epps has been fighting against oppressive racism and misogyny in NASA and now they are holding her back and allowing a Caucasian astronaut to take her place.”
Epps in an email to the Washington Post said she could not comment on her brother’s post, but in an interview on June 21 at the Tech Open Air Festival in Berlin, Epps spoke about NASA’s decision to remove her from the flight.
“I don’t know where the decision came from and how it was made in detail or at what level.”
Epps in the interview, said several of her Russian colleagues voiced concern about her removal from the flight. Epps also addressed speculation that racism or sexism led to her removal.
“There’s no time to really be concerned about sexism and racism and things like that, because we have to perform. And if it comes into play, then you’re hindering the mission and you’re hindering the performance. And so, whether or not it is a factor, I can’t speculate what people are thinking and doing unless I have a little bit more information.
But in another interview on October 30 in her hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., Epps said she was “extremely excited” about the flight before NASA removed her.
“It was for reasons I really don’t understand at this point,” she said. “It was a management decision…we’re still working on that.”
In its history, NASA has sent at least 150 astronauts into space. Fourteen of them were Black. In the early 1960s, the space agency resisted demands to integrate its ranks as it struggled with a lily-white image.
President John F. Kennedy ordered NASA to boost opportunities for minorities and send a Black astronaut into space.
The first applicant, Ed Dwight, was not chosen after NASA officials said he didn’t meet their academic standards. The second applicant, Chicago’s Major Robert H. Lawrence, was chosen, but was killed when a pilot he was training crashed the F-104 Starfighter Jet at Edwards Air Force Base in 1967. In 1983, Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. became the first Black astronaut to fly into space on the Space Shuttle Challenger. In 1992, Chicago’s Mae Jemison became the first Black woman in space.
In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Major Charles Bolden Jr. as the first Black man to serve as the 12th Administrator of NASA.
On December 4, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will host a two-part program to celebrate Black Americans at NASA.
In her YouTube interview, Jemison seemed cautiously optimistic about being the first Black woman to travel in space aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.
“Being the first anything to me bears a lot of responsibility,” she said at the time. “I’m up for that challenge, but at the same time, I’m hopeful.”