NASA Astronaut Dr. Jeanette Epps has been abruptly grounded.
Epps was on track to become the first African-American to travel through space and live on the International Space Station for an extended six-month assignment.
But now that Epps has been abruptly pulled from the NASA mission, Epps’ brother says “racism” is the reason why his sister will be sitting behind a desk in Houston instead of riding a space shuttle and making history.
Henry Epps, Jeannette’s brother, shared a MoveOn.org petition on his Facebook page, calling for Epps to be reinstated to the NASA mission. The petition had 406 signatures Sunday night.
“My sister Dr. Jeannette Epps has been fighting against oppressive racism and misogynist in NASA and now they are holding her back and allowing a Caucasian Astronaut to take her place!” Henry Epps wrote on Facebook.
“We have lost all of the gains we gained over the past 40 years in one year? No more!” he said. “We cannot continue to tolerate what is going on in America but we must stand together and stand behind our people and our nation! Take a stand and sign the petition! Thank you!”
NASA announced that Epps would be replaced on the June mission but did not explain why. According to some media reports, it’s rare for NASA to remove an astronaut so close to a space mission. Epps was one of a few African-American women to be trained by NASA for space travel.
Epps has been replaced by her backup, Serena Auñón-Chancellor, a 41-year-old doctor. The NASA statement said Epps will remain with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“A number of factors are considered when making flight assignments; these decisions are personnel matters for which NASA doesn’t provide information,” said Brandi Dean, a spokesperson for NASA, in an email to The Verge.
NASA’s decision is nonetheless a disappointment for many African-Americans – and many Black women – who have been following Epps’ career. Many have been cheering for Epps, 47, an engineer and role model for Black girls interested in STEM fields.
In an interview with Elle magazine last year, Epps said, “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,” she said.
“When people come back from space,” Epps added, “I see how much they want to go again.”
NASA has trained other Black astronauts for space missions – mostly Black men.
Maj. Frederick D. Gregory, Col. Guion and the late Ronald McNair were the first Black astronauts to join NASA’s elite Space Shuttle program ranks in 1978.
Col. Bluford became the first African-American in space after flying on a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. Maj. Gregory is the first African-American to pilot an orbiter craft and also the first to command space shuttle missions in 1985 and 1989.
According to NASA’s website, Epps was born in Syracuse, New York. She joined NASA in 2009 as an astronaut. Epps worked for Ford Motor Company and then joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for seven years working as a Technical Intelligence Officer before becoming an astronaut.
Epps earned a Bachelor of Science in physics at LeMoyne College in 1992 and earned a Master of Science and Doctorate of Philosophy in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland in 1994 and 2000.
Former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe – now a Syracuse University professor -– said Epps could still get a chance to travel in space with NASA.
“Crew changes aren’t unusual and when they do happen, the reassigned astronauts almost always fly on a later mission,” O’Keefe told reporters. “The exceptions are very few and far between.”
Only time will tell.
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