UCLA graduate will become the first black woman on the crew of the International Space Station

Jessica Watkins. Credit: NASA

NASA rookie astronaut Jessica Watkins, who has a doctorate from UCLA and previously worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, is set to make aerospace history on Wednesday when she embarks on a mission that will make her the first black woman to serve as a crew member. on the International Space Station.

Hawthorne-based SpaceX is scheduled to launch the mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 12:52 a.m. Wednesday. Watkins and the other three members of “Crew-4” — the fourth operational crew launched by SpaceX to the station under a contract with NASA — will fly aboard a new Crew Dragon spacecraft dubbed Freedom.

While the Dragon spacecraft is new, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that will propel the crew on its way has been used in three previous missions. SpaceX will again attempt to recover the rocket by landing it on a barge named “A Shortfall of Gravitas” floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

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SpaceX has made a habit of salvaging and reusing rocket boosters to significantly reduce the cost of future missions.

A geologist by trade, Watkins will serve as a mission specialist as a member of Crew-4, according to NASA. Flying with Watkins on the mission will be NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Robert Hines and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

The crew will spend six months on the space station, making Watkins the first black woman to fly extended missions in space. Other black women have flown into space but have never been long-term members of the space station crew.

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According to NASA, Watkins was born in Maryland but grew up in Lafayette, Colorado. She holds a bachelor’s degree in geological and environmental sciences from Stanford University and a doctorate in geology from UCLA, where he obtained a research degree focusing on “the mechanisms of the emplacement of large landslides of land on Mars and on Earth”.

She interned at NASA and then worked at the space agency’s Ames Research Center and JPL. She was also a postdoctoral fellow in Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, working on the Mars Curiosity rover. She was also a volunteer assistant coach for Caltech’s women’s basketball team.