My story

Dr Jeanette J. Epps

ELLE (UK) - - Contents - As told to Han­nah Nathanson

How NASA as­tro­naut Dr Jeanette J. Epps is pre­par­ing for her mis­sion to live on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion




eing an as­tro­naut is one of those jobs where you’re guar­an­teed per­spec­tive in life. As we take off, I imag­ine I’ll be think­ing about the new­ness of all the sounds and sights.

I’ve spo­ken to a lot of fel­low as­tro­nauts about what it’s like go­ing into space; I re­mem­ber NASA’s Gre­gory Chamitoff de­scrib­ing what it felt like to space walk. He said he re­mem­bered be­ing sur­rounded by the deep­est black you can think of. I’ve al­ways had strange dreams of be­ing in noth­ing­ness, just float­ing in com­plete dark­ness or go­ing through the ma­trix. Soon, it will no longer be a dream.

Space-walk train­ing is one of the coolest parts of my job. NASA op­er­ates a Neu­tral Buoy­ancy Lab­o­ra­tory (NBL) at the Sonny Carter Train­ing Fa­cil­ity in Houston, Texas; it’s a huge pool that’s 40ft 6in deep, 102ft wide and 202ft long. There are mock-ups of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS) there. We have to get into the space-walk suit, which weighs about 140kg, and then they lower us into the water to sim­u­late what it will be like in space by mak­ing us neu­trally buoy­ant, so we nei­ther sink nor float.

We can be train­ing un­der­wa­ter for six hours, which is pretty drain­ing. At some point, you start feel­ing the weight of the suit. It’s also men­tally ex­haust­ing, be­cause you have to fig­ure out how to make the suit work. When you space­walk, you don’t ac­tu­ally use your legs very much – you mainly use your up­per body, so you need to be able to op­er­ate tools and work wear­ing gloves, which feel like oven mitts. If some­thing breaks while I’m on the ISS I might have to do a space walk to fix it. I’ll be one of the flight en­gi­neers, so my main du­ties will be con­duct­ing sci­ence ex­per­i­ments and main­tain­ing the ISS sys­tems.

As a child, I wanted to go into aerospace engi­neer­ing and work for NASA, but I never thought I’d be se­lected as an as­tro­naut. Grow­ing up in Syra­cuse, New York, my twin sis­ter Janet and I were al­ways in­ter­ested in sci­ence and maths. We were the youngest of seven chil­dren; my mother Lu­berta, who worked as a key­punch oper­a­tor for a lo­cal com­puter com­pany, was very pro­tec­tive of us and al­ways stressed how im­por­tant education was.

When we were nine years old, my older brother Michael came home from univer­sity and saw our school grades on our re­port cards. I re­mem­ber be­ing sur­prised by how proud he was. He said we could be­come sci­en­tists, aerospace

en­gi­neers or even as­tro­nauts. At the time, Sally Ride, who would be­come the first Amer­i­can woman in space, had just been se­lected by NASA. I guess his en­cour­age­ment planted a seed in my mind.

I de­cided I wanted to study engi­neer­ing when I was

16. I was do­ing an in­tern­ship in pathol­ogy at the New York Health Sci­ence Cen­ter to fig­ure out what it was I wanted to do. The only rea­son I didn’t con­tinue down that path was be­cause one of the doc­tors in­vited me into the au­topsy room. When he started tak­ing out the in­testines, it was the worst thing I’d ever seen, and I knew I would be more suited to engi­neer­ing.

As a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Mary­land with my sis­ter Janet, I worked all the time. My ad­viser al­ways told a story about how he had been out of town and stopped by the lab late on Sun­day evening, and Janet (who later went into ge­net­ics) and I were there col­lect­ing data. We worked con­stantly, but we didn’t think it was strange; we thought it was a good way to spend our time. After grad school, I went to work at Ford Mo­tor Com­pany in their sci­en­tific research lab­o­ra­tory as a Tech­ni­cal Spe­cial­ist.

Sex­ism and racism are al­ways present, and I’ve had some pretty neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, both at univer­sity and in my ca­reer. One of the ques­tions young women of­ten ask me is whether I’ve had any prob­lems be­ing a black woman work­ing in engi­neer­ing. I al­ways tell them I have no prob­lem with it, but other peo­ple may have and that’s their prob­lem. If I make it mine, it stops me from mov­ing for­ward. The in­ten­tion [of their neg­a­tiv­ity] is to stop you from pro­gress­ing and limit your cre­ative think­ing.

In 2003, I went to Iraq as a Tech­ni­cal Op­er­a­tions Of­fi­cer with the CIA to look for weapons of mass de­struc­tion. As a lab geek, mak­ing the de­ci­sion to go to Iraq was daunt­ing, but I told my­self, “I have to do this.” I had to do some­thing dif­fer­ent and gain a new per­spec­tive. I was there for four months and it was an amaz­ing, life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s not for ev­ery­one. As a sci­en­tist I’d spent most of my time do­ing de­sign work and try­ing to cre­ate things, so go­ing to Iraq, help­ing to solve a na­tional is­sue and re­ally get­ting a sense of what was hap­pen­ing, fu­elled my de­sire to know and to un­der­stand.

I get very ex­cited when I think about be­ing up in space, partly be­cause I com­pare it to go­ing into a war zone. Both are very dan­ger­ous but, for me, it’s a no-brainer: I would rather face the dan­gers in space than go back to a war zone. I’ll never for­get the night when we were in the air­port in Iraq and a young man had just come back from a con­voy; he looked to­tally dif­fer­ent to when I had seen him the pre­vi­ous week. He showed me the rounds that had struck his body ar­mour that day. He was just sit­ting there think­ing about how he was nearly killed. See­ing him and re­al­is­ing that our wars are fought by peo­ple’s chil­dren, peo­ple’s hus­bands and wives, had a real im­pact on me.

I con­stantly think about work, but when I get home I like to have a do­mes­tic life. Once a month, I’ll go out to a happy hour, just chat with friends and try not to talk about work. I don’t have any kids and I’m one of those peo­ple who seems to al­ways have a boyfriend or some­thing ro­man­tic go­ing on. I don’t know if men are in­tim­i­dated, but it’s hard to keep a re­la­tion­ship go­ing when I’m pre­oc­cu­pied with work.

I’ll be one of six liv­ing on the ISS and the only woman.

I’m not too wor­ried about that, though. I com­pleted the un­der­wa­ter NASA Ex­treme En­vi­ron­ment Mis­sion Op­er­a­tions (NEEMO), which places trained as­tro­nauts in an un­der­wa­ter lab­o­ra­tory off the coast of Florida for up to three weeks. I was the only fe­male out of six peo­ple and we had close quar­ters, sleep­ing in bunks. When you’re liv­ing 50ft un­der­wa­ter, your blood be­comes sat­u­rated with ni­tro­gen, so it’s one of the clos­est equiv­a­lents to space; you can’t just get up and leave. You have to do a 17-hour ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion to purge the ni­tro­gen out of your blood, oth­er­wise it can be dan­ger­ous. NEEMO was one of my favourite train­ing ex­er­cises. It was tough, but it was so much fun liv­ing and work­ing un­der­wa­ter.

The space suits look strange from the out­side be­cause they ap­pear as though you’re squashed in, but they’re more com­fort­able than they look. We’re al­lowed to pick some of the clothes that will be shipped up to the ISS be­fore we ar­rive. There are polo shirts, cargo trousers and a cou­ple of uni­forms, some of which have Vel­cro on them so you can at­tach tools for when you’re go­ing about the space sta­tion do­ing main­te­nance work. We also get to choose home com­forts to take. I love woolly sweaters, so I’ll pick some of my own; I like that they make it rel­a­tively com­fort­able and you can make the ISS your home.

I’m health­ier and stronger now than I was when I was

20. On the ISS, they have an ex­er­cise de­vice that helps load your bones so you don’t lose any den­sity; there’s also a bi­cy­cle and tread­mill. I’m not a long-dis­tance run­ner, but I do like putting on my head­phones, go­ing for a run and for­get­ting about the world. There will be iPads and lap­tops up there so we can watch movies while we run.

When peo­ple come back from space, I see how much they want to go again. I sus­pect I will be one of those peo­ple. I’d find my­self at the back of the queue, but it’s worth the wait – or at least that’s what I think I’ll come back say­ing.




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