Making history: Jeanette’s giant leap

Astronaut Jeanette Epps made history in January when Nasa announced she will be the first black American to board the International Space Station. We ask: how do you prepare for six months in space?

Having paused to enjoy seeing ‘incoming call, Houston’ flash up on my phone, I ask Epps how life has been since the announcement. She was named in January as one of the flight engineers who will join an expedition to the International Space Station planned for May 2018.

“I’ve been floored by the response,” she says. “I didn’t think that being the first African American person was all that important; we’re all doing the same work. But now I realise it’s important to acknowledge it, if not for myself, then for the millions of people who would really love to go to space. Once I get this over with, I hope it will no longer be something novel – we can just look to the future together.”

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Epps, a former CIA technical intelligence officer from New York, faces a rigorous preparation regime; from learning how to spacewalk, to wilderness survival training in Russia. She regularly spends up to six hours underwater in a heavy space suit, readying herself for the conditions above Earth. And what about coping psychologically?

“I’ll take pictures of my nieces, nephews and friends with me. We each have our own part of ‘crew quarters,’ about the size of a closet, but it’s our own. So I’ll call it home and that will help. I’ve realised I can be very flexible and adaptable.”

An astronaut told me that when he looked at Earth from space, he didn’t see any borders. He realised everybody he loved in the world was there

Spending lots of time thinking about space has already helped bring a sense of perspective: “It helps me to let small things be small things.” And Epps avoids feeling overwhelmed about the mission by taking time out from work.

“I go indoor skydiving or to the movies. I love exercising, so I’ll often go to the gym or scuba diving with a friend. I’m also not above watching TV, so I’ll binge watch something like Game of Thrones. Unwinding lets the information that I’ve learned in the day absorb into my brain subconsciously.”

Jeanette Epps (left) is an astronaut and aerospace engineer at Nasa

If she could stash one person to take with her, Epps says she’d take her 12-year-old nephew. “He’s a great kid and he’s always wondering about the world. I would love to do that for him.”

And what intrigues her most about being on the International Space Station? “I can’t wait to see Earth from the window. An astronaut told me that when he looked at Earth from space, he didn’t see any borders. He just saw one planet and realised that everybody he loved in the world was there. It makes me wonder: will it change my perspective? I’m definitely going to come back with stories.”

Images: NASA

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