NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps was selected to fly into Earth‘s orbit and become the first Black astronaut to live at the International Space Station. At the last minute, Epps was removed from the mission with no explanation whatsoever.
Even though more than a dozen Black Americans have flown to space after Guion Bluford, none has had the chance to live and work in space for a prolonged period, as the ISS has housed more than 200 astronauts since 2000.
Now, after years of hypotheses about why NASA removed Epps from the mission, she was finally reassigned. The space agency says she will join astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada on a 2021 expedition on board of a Boeing-built Starliner spacecraft, a probe that is still under works and is expected to redo an important flight later this year.
Epps’ Removal from Expedition 56
Epps has a doctorate in aerospace engineering and worked for seven years as a technical intelligence office at the CIA before becoming an astronaut in 2009. NASA said back in 2017 that Epps would make history by joining the crew at the ISS as part of Expedition 56. During these missions, astronauts become residents of the orbiting lab and spend months carrying out experiments and managing the 20-year-old space station.
However, even as more than a dozen Black Americans have flown to space, none of them served as expedition crew members. NASA astronaut Victor Glover could also be the first Black person to live at the ISS, as he is assigned to a SpaceX Crew Dragon expedition that is set to launch later this year.
Regarding the removal from the assignment, Epps publicly expressed confusion about the decision.
She said: “It was a decision of my management, and it’s something that we’re going to try to continue to work through.”
When asked whether she assigned the decision to sexism or racism, Epps replied: “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…Whether or not it’s a factor, I can’t specifically speculate on what people are thinking.”
No details about the decision have yet been made public, and the announcement about Epps’ new mission did not mention Expedition 56.
“A number of factors are considered when making flight assignments,” NASA said. “These decisions are personnel matters for which NASA doesn’t provide information.”
Starliner-1 Expedition to ISS
The expedition Epps is now assigned to, Starliner-1, will be the first fully operational flight of the new spacecraft built by Boeing as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Welcome to our CTS Starliner 1 crew Dr Jeanette Epps!!!! pic.twitter.com/ksVTdGFQl7
— Sunita Williams (@Astro_Suni) August 25, 2020
Boeing has to get to a few milestones before the launch, however. Starliner is set to repeat an unmanned orbital flight test after its first flight, which took place in December of 2019, failed as the spacecraft was riddled with dozens of software errors. The company was forced to return the probe home days before the schedule and without being able to complete its objective of reaching the ISS. A second chance to the mission is expected later this year.
After the unmanned test flight is successfully carried on, NASA astronauts Michael Fincke, Nicole Mann, and Chris Ferguson, a former astronaut who now works for Boeing, will operate Starliner on its first-ever crewed flight before the spacecraft is deemed as ‘operational.’