“I am not defined by this.” NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps talks about being pulled from the ISS mission

Jeannette Epps was set to be the first African American woman on the Space Station.
Jeannette Epps was set to be the first African American woman on the Space Station.
Image: Stefan Wieland/Tech Open Air
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Jeanette Epps can easily be seen as a poster woman for success. Even though that’s something she never set out to become. Not only has she achieved prestige as a former CIA officer and now as a NASA astronaut, she has also navigated her career against all the odds as an African-American woman in industries that are structurally geared to nurturing white men.

Epps was just 9 when her college-age brother looked at her school report card and told her that she could be an aerospace engineer or an astronaut. It stuck. She thought there was no way she would be picked to become an astronaut, and decided to become an aerospace engineer, because “you can actually build things.”

Born in 1970 in Syracuse, New York, she joined NASA during grad school, as a fellow, and then worked in research at Ford Motors, before joining the CIA for seven years as a technical intelligence officer. She was selected to become an astronaut in 2009, graduated in 2011, and started training.

NASA announced in 2017 that Epps had been chosen to go to the International Space Station (ISS) in June this year—she was to be the first African-American woman to live on the station. Then suddenly, in December last year, Epps was pulled from Expedition 56.

She said at the Tech Open Air conference in Berlin that she can’t speculate on why she was pulled—it was a management decision and she’s still waiting for an official reason. Crew members have been taken off missions in the past, but generally for medical reasons—Epps had no health issues, had passed all the training, and was cleared to fly. She told the audience that she prefers not to speculate on media stories saying the decision was sexist or racist, as it detracts from the mission that she and her colleagues have worked so hard on.

Apart from that, Epps has barely commented on her removal since NASA announced it in January. But when she sat down with Quartz in Berlin, she talked about moving on from the shock and disappointment of not being in space right now and how to bounce back from major career setbacks.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Quartz: Was being pulled from the team bound for the ISS the greatest hurdle in your career so far?

Epps: Yes, and because it was so public on top of it. It was like “NASA what are you doing? It’s so public, do you really want to do this now?” The other part of this is that I’m not defined by this one thing that happened.

Were you able to use the mental resilience from the intense astronaut training to get you through the disappointment?

Yes, and I have a great family, too. My twin sister, my nieces, my nephews, a lot of people came out of the woodwork and I do think that going through a trying period makes you really realize who your friends are. That was one of the best things that happened in the darkest hour. So many people were willing to help and were impacted and I had people coming to me crying and wanting to help in so many ways. I had no clue what I was coming back to and you go through this range of emotions from, like, shock, to trying to wrap your brain around what just happened and what’s to come. There was also a little anger.

It sounds similar to the stages of grief…

It’s definitely the exact same thing. There’s a loss, so there’s definitely grief—and other people were grieving for me. The people who came through for me the most were my trainers, because they never expected this, they never saw it coming. It was one of the best experiences in the sense that I didn’t have to go through it alone.

What would you tell anyone who has put their life and soul into their career and suddenly it looks like it has derailed?

Regrouping is the first thing to do, but then you realize that you have to go through this whole phase of grief and that it’s not the end. You’ve already done so much and been successful, why would this one thing derail your career or even silence your voice?

The biggest thing that I realized is that when something like this happens you have an even bigger voice now, and you have a platform and that’s the thing that people fail to understand. Things like this can be used to derail you—if you let it. But if you use it as a platform, maybe you can help someone else or to get other people involved in things like this, and almost force the right thing to happen.

Is NASA cool with you talking about what happened?

This is part of my job. I have to do PR, it’s part of my performance appraisal. I have to get out, I have to train, I have to do outreach—our job is really to inspire people. Even though my story is different, it has to be told and I think it only helps younger people who have never experienced anything harsh to realize that things can happen and how you respond is way more important than what happened.

You said that initially you didn’t want to be singled out, or to be the poster woman for black women in space. What changed?

You kind of have to take it on, because you realize that there are all these girls that really want this, and they want it because they feel like they need it. Even if it’s just for motivation, [you need to do it] so they can see, “Hey, she’s doing this, and if she’s trudging on, I can trudge on too.”

Is there enough being done in schools to keep young girls locked in, girls who may dream, like you did at 9 years old, of being an astronaut?

That is my fear, I’m not sure that there is enough being done. I have two nieces, one is 6 and one 7, and I’m worried that the 7-year-old will get to 9 and all of a sudden things will change, because that’s what some of the studies are showing. I’m like, “No, we got to figure out how to keep her on this track.”

In my opinion, the boys don’t understand that the system was built around them, that it’s for them. There are things that can be done to help girls. I don’t know if it’s having more female speakers come out and engage the girls at that young age to encourage them to keep going forward, and getting them more involved in hands on activities. Girls, if they’re interested in math and science and things like that, have to understand that the applied aspect of it is very hands-on. I didn’t have a whole lot of hands-on experience at using milling machines and lathes and things like that. But a lot of the boys did.

Did you already have to overcome big odds just to get into college to study astro-engineering?

I was very fortunate, because I have a twin sister, and she and I together could ignore everyone. I was fortunate to have this kind of support group—it didn’t matter what other people thought, we were going to do this together anyway. And having that kind of support going though undergrad and getting over your own insecurities and self-doubt is really important.

You talked today about the importance of being flexible, adaptable, and able to get along well with people. Do you think when women fall down with it comes to cultivating career relationships?

Being flexible and adaptable to work in any environment is very important, then there’s also the other layer: Does your boss know who you are. And what kind of rapport do you have with your boss? I’m trying to stay away from calling it office politics, but your boss has to know who you are and engage you in conversation. I never got that advice.

You don’t want to be a braggart but your boss has to recognize that you did a good job and that you’re a part of the team. Sometimes I think we think “I’m going to be recognized for my work and I don’t have to go out and make sure my boss knows this.” But you kind of have to.

When did you realize that in your career—was it pre-NASA or pre-CIA?

Unfortunately I realized it too late. I realized it at the CIA and tried to incorporate as much of it as I could going to NASA. But even then, politics can become very complicated.

My mistakes were in being quiet and thinking that my work would stand for itself. There are other forces at play that you have to combat, and the only way to do that I think is by being very consistent, asking a lot of questions, making sure that your performance is on par. I went to my trainers and said “am I missing anything in the training, is there more that I need to do?” In my business, you want to ask how you are doing in comparison to your colleagues—for safety reasons as well, especially when it comes to emergency.

Most women, I think, are like you and I. We approach the job, we want to do it extremely well and make sure we’re a part of the team, but we’re also a little shy in the sense that we don’t want come out too strong and say, “Hey, look what I just did.”

You’re not on the space station right now. What’s next—might you go to the moon some day?

Potentially, if I stay in the office, yes. There’s a good potential for that, especially by the time we go to commercial in 2025. In the meantime, we may have other missions though, that are test missions, that’s to be seen, so maybe 2022, a mission out around the moon and back.

But I’m at the point now with my career, and as bizarre as its been with this public announcement and things like that, I’m not sure what the future holds for me exactly.

I am reinvigorated in that my career isn’t defined by this event, there’s been a ton of good things that have happened and a ton of good things that likely will happen. The reason I think I’m as hopeful too is that I’ve think I’ve been successful as an astronaut in all the training, having been certified for assignment…it was really gratifying to know I can go through all that and pass all the classes and develop a really nice working rapport with the Russians.