Growing up in Syracuse, New York, as the youngest of seven children, Jeanette Epps dreamed of going to space, just like her hero on TV’s Doctor Who. (The show instilled a lifelong interest in math and science.) When her older brother came home from college and, after glancing at her fourth-grade report card, suggested that she could become an aerospace engineer, the idea stuck. But the path to Houston wasn’t always clear. Here’s how Epps conquered her fears and fought her way to NASA.
Work for what you want
After high school, Epps attended Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, majoring in physics because the school did not have an engineering program. “I wanted to go to the University of Maryland [for graduate school] because they have an amazing aerospace engineering program,” she says. “I kept calling the chair of the department trying to persuade him.” Eventually, she convinced him to let her into a master’s program, which paved the way for her doctorate. After earning her PhD in aerospace engineering, Epps worked for two years as a researcher at Ford, before being recruited by the CIA as an analyst in the weapons nonproliferation group, where she studied aircraft from other countries. She also volunteered to do two tours in Iraq. While being an astronaut seemed like an impossible pipe dream to her as a child, she realized that the technical experience she got at Ford combined with her abilities as an operator under intense pressure, which she honed at the CIA, might make her a competitive candidate. After talking to her peers, she decided to take the leap. “I’m not afraid to ask people, ‘What can I do to get where I want to be?’ I was 38 and I thought it would be my last chance to apply for my dream job.”
Rely on your friends for support
After applying to be an astronaut training candidate at NASA in 2008 and going through several interviews (as well as medical, physical, and psychiatric evaluations), Epps was selected from a pool of more than 3,500 applicants. Then came the hard part: making it through two years of astronaut training, which involves intensive Russian lessons, robotics classes, and underwater space-walk simulations. “They call you an ‘ass-can’ when you’re an astronaut candidate, and you have to work to get rid of that designation,” she says. Finally, in 2017, she was offered a spot on the International Space Station as a flight engineer. A few months later, she was replaced. Though crew changes are fairly common at NASA, it was tough for her to accept. “Understanding why things are happening and the motivation [behind decisions] is key in those moments,” she says. “Being reactionary is never good. Being proactive is how you get through it.” Epps says she leaned on her friends, asking them for constructive criticism and seeking validation to build herself back up. She’s set to go to space next year, when she will become the first Black woman on an ISS long-duration crew.
Focus on the work
The hardest part of astronaut training? Preparing for the grueling space walk. “You spend six hours underwater completing difficult engineering tasks. You can get to the point where you’re in calorie deficit and you’re exhausted,” Epps says. “I’ve spent 439 hours underwater, and I’ve gotten stronger mentally through practice.” To push through, she puts all her energy into focusing on the mission. “I think: I don’t want to break the ISS, and I don’t want my crew to rescue me or put anyone in danger.” Similarly, when you’re working in a group setting, Epps says it’s important to put your ego aside in service of the bigger goal. “I try to do my assigned task and keep myself safe, then I help others.” She’s also learned how important it is to ask for help from your colleagues: “Sometimes you have to do it, and that’s not a sign of weakness.” There’s no place for ego when you’re in space, and the margin for error is infinitesimally small.