Jessica Watkins to be first Black woman to join International Space Station crew

Watkins said it's an example for young girls "of ways that they can participate and succeed."

Colorado-born astronaut Jessica Watkins is set to make history when she becomes the first Black woman to join the International Space Station next year. 

NASA announced on Tuesday that Watkins will serve as a mission specialist on the SpaceX Crew-4 mission slated for April 2022. The mission is expected to last six months.

In an interview with The New York Times, Watkins noted the importance of representation in science and space expiration, particularly so young girls “see an example of ways that they can participate and succeed.”

In 2017, NASA selected Watkins as one of its first class of astronaut candidates out of a record number of 18,300 applicants. Only twelve people made it to the final class, and Watkins was the only Black woman in the group.

“I’m very excited about the diversity on this team, this amazing group of people. I think that says a lot about NASA and their goals towards creating a diverse workforce,” she said at the time. “I think the thing about diversity is that it allows for experiences that may not be exactly the same to bring different things to the table. And then the other side of that… is the idea of being able to be a face to others who may not see people who look like them in STEM fields in general, and doing cool things like going to space.”

Watkins also spoke about another of her passions: encouraging girls to pursue their dreams. She said that it was so important for women and girls to have a female mentor to guide them through.

“That is something that has really pushed me to this point in my life,” she said. “I’ve been really grateful and lucky to have the mentorship support that I’ve received from a lot of my teachers and professors and supervisors. That’s been something that’s really important for me, and I think help with that idea of persistence, having a mentor who can continue to push you and encourage you in a STEM field is really helpful.”

Watkins majored in mechanical engineering at Stanford and then switched to studying planetary geology, which was more in line with her passions. She graduated with her doctorate in geology at UCLA and then started working on the Mars rover.

Watkins told the Times that becoming an astronaut was “something I dreamed about for a very long time ever since I was pretty little, but definitely not something I thought would ever happen.”

“It is certainly not lost on me that we’ve arrived in this moment in history,” she added. “This moment is not as worthwhile if we are not able to focus on the job and perform well.”

For her 2020 space mission, Watkins will be joined by fellow NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Robert Hines, as well as astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from the European Space Agency, per NASA’s announcement.

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