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NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins will join a small yet groundbreaking list Saturday when she becomes the fifth Black woman to go to space and the first Black woman to serve aboard the International Space Station.
Watkins’ mission has drawn praise from diversity and inclusion experts, but it shows just how far Black women still have to go in the white, male-dominated profession.
“You know there’s not enough of us. Women are underrepresented in science, although it’s getting better in some ways,” said Mae Jemison, who made her own headlines in 1992 when she became the first Black woman to go to space.
“There is a lot of gatekeeping, both conscious and unconscious, that keeps people out. But once you are there, it’s ‘where do you fit?’ People hold you to a stereotype of what they consider a scientist. There’s this unrelenting requirement that you prove you have the right to be there. Many times I think that we achieve in these fields in spite of, not because of.”Watkins will be the fifth Black woman to have gone to space. The others are Jemison; Stephanie Wilson, who, at more than 42 days, has spent more time in space than any Black other woman; Joan Higginbotham; and Sian Proctor, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft.
Watkins joined NASA as an intern and held several positions as a researcher and geologist before she was selected as an astronaut candidate in 2017. Watkins earned her bachelor’s degree in geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University and her doctorate in geology at UCLA. Her career with NASA has been long and full of accomplishments: She has held roles at the agency’s Ames Research Center and studied near-Earth asteroids at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and she was was part of the science team for the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity.
She gushed about the coming trip in a previous interview, agreeing that her mission is both a barrier-breaking moment and the natural progression of the field.
“We have reached this milestone, this point in time, and the reason we’re able to arrive at this time is because of the legacy of those who have come before to allow for this moment,” Watkins said. “Also, recognizing this is a step in the direction of a very exciting future. So to be a part of that is certainly an honor.”
The crew will blast off from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, early Saturday for a six-month stint in the ISS laboratory conducting research and doing maintenance on the station, the space agency said. Watkins will work alongside three other crew members — astronauts Robert Hines and Kjell Lindgren of NASA and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency.
While Watkins’ accomplishment is a great step forward for the space industry and evidence of its strides in diversity, there is still work to be done.
A report this year from the Space Frontier Foundation, a space advocacy organization, found that nearly 90 percent of people who have been to space are white men. And the space industry as a whole — from researchers and managers to writers and photographers — is “only marginally better,” the researchers said. The report also found that white people in the space industry are more likely to make six-figure salaries than Black employees.
“The fact that it’s taken this long to get African American folks on the ISS is disappointing. But it’s nice to see this focus is finally happening,” said Kim Macharia, a Black woman who is the chair of the foundation’s board. She highlighted that even though crews began living on the ISS in 2000, it took more than a decade for a Black astronaut, Victor Glover Jr., to serve a long-term mission on the station. Bernard Harris Jr. in 1995 became the first Black person to walk in space. Just nine years earlier, Ronald McNair became the second Black astronaut to go to space; he died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
“Less than 12 percent of all astronauts have ever been women, specifically. And then when you look at the number of people of color, the number is even lower there,” Macharia said. “But in the actual workforce at large, about 20 percent of the industry’s workforce is women. So, there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to addressing these demographics.”
Most recently, Jemison was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her widely recognized accomplishments in the field. Since leaving NASA, she has prioritized diversity in her own endeavors. She leads 100 Year Starship, a global initiative to support human travel to another star within the next 100 years. “I actively bring in people who embody that word ‘inclusion’ — across ethnicity, gender and geography — as well as across disciplines,” she said.
Jemison isn’t the only former NASA employee to have taken on such a task. John Hines, a former NASA researcher, founded the Hines Family Foundation to provide resources and opportunities for children from disadvantaged communities interested in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.
Now, as Watkins continues her career with a growing NASA, Jemison is using her recognition to push the industry forward.
“Very frequently we have a tendency to forget that we have to continue to grow. And we don’t hold ourselves to that. I do,” she said. “I always hold myself to continuing to grow, learning new things and contributing in a different way.”
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Char Adams is a reporter for NBC BLK who writes about race.
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