The Lenny Interview: Jeanette Epps

A conversation with the NASA astronaut heading into the stratosphere.

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Imagine watching the sun rise and set sixteen times in 24 hours. Imagine seeing the stars burn bright against the blackness, unimpeded by atmosphere. Imagine sleeping, eating, writing, conducting lab experiments, playing a guitar, or menstruating in microgravity. Imagine heading out into the void of space with only the shell of your pressurized suit protecting you from oblivion. Imagine looking out your window and seeing the great curve of Earth's surface, the shimmering seas, the blinding ice caps, the sparkling lights of civilization sprinkled through the dark.

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That's a pretty normal day for astronauts who inhabit the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits the planet 250 miles from the Earth's surface. Spanning the length of a football field and weighing almost one million pounds, the ISS is an aeronautical wonder, a collaborative floating laboratory that has allowed humans our longest continual presence in space. For fifteen years, this magnificent satellite has been crewed by a rotating cast of astronauts from all over the world. Two hundred and twenty humans from eighteen countries have visited the ISS; more than half of them have been Americans.

The people who choose to strap themselves to fireballs to be shot up into the sky in the name of adventure and science have always fascinated me, ever since someone suggested that I, too, could be one of them. I didn't believe it, and besides, saying that you want to be an astronaut when you grow up is such an improbable goal that it's basically a cliché of empowerment. Still, I've often wondered: who gets to go to space, and why?

In 2018, NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps will spend up to six months living aboard the ISS along with three other astronauts, all men. Born in upstate New York, Epps and her twin are the youngest of seven siblings. She worked as an aerospace engineer before being selected for NASA's 2009 astronaut class, Group 20 (nicknamed "The Chumps" by the previous class, as is NASA tradition). As part of her astronaut training, Epps has completed deep-sea dives, jet-flying exercises, space-suit training sessions, and Russian-language immersion (so she can communicate with her fellow crew members). I talked to her about preparing for an experience beyond apprehension, her favorite movies about space, and how she ended up joining one of the most exclusive clubs on Earth, or anywhere else.

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Rose Lichter-Marck: So when did you first decide you wanted to be an astronaut?

Jeanette Epps: My older brother suggested it when I was nine years old. He came home from college, looked at my grades, and said, "You can be an aerospace engineer, a doctor, maybe even an astronaut. They've selected women." This was around when Sally Ride was selected for Astronaut Group 8. I thought, Ha, they'll never select me for an astronaut, but I can definitely become an aerospace engineer.

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RLM: In addition to Sally Ride, who were the role models whose accomplishments made you think, I can do that?

JE: There were people like Guy Bluford, the first African American in space. But mostly, it was my mother. She thought that educating yourself was the way to go. If you educated yourself, you never had to worry about anything. Still, no one in my immediate family was an engineer or a doctor or anything like that. She said this funny thing to me and my sister when we finished graduate school: that she was surprised. She said, "Man, my biggest hope for you guys was that you would become secretaries, and look at you now!"

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RLM: I heard you say in an interview that for a long time you thought it was literally impossible to become an astronaut. Now you're about to go into space. How did that come about?

JE: When I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, people in the aerospace department were applying to the astronaut corps. They had done a lot of different things and had great résumés and didn't get in. I knew it was pretty tough to get into the astronaut corps. I'm like, If these guys aren't getting selected, how would I get selected? I kind of decided to do what makes me happy.

So I took a job in the scientific-research lab of the Ford Motor Company. Then I went to the CIA as a research scientist. But once I was there, I had the chance to volunteer to do things outside of the lab, like go to Iraq for four months with the Iraq Survey Group to look for WMD. That was a period in my life that made me very self-aware. I got to know my limits and understand myself. That is what probably led me to say, Maybe it's time.

And then my friend Leland Melvin got into the training program. He called me and said, "Hey, why don't you apply?" I was like, I think I'm finally ready.

RLM: You've done a lot of outreach work since you joined NASA. Why do you think it is important to encourage young people — especially young girls — to consider pursuing STEM-related studies?

JE: Well, let me say that initially I thought that the term STEM had been overused and was just a buzzword, blah, blah, blah. Then I realized that getting people involved in STEM is actually a national issue. We don't have as many people as we did in the past going into the technical fields. There are tons of jobs out there, but no one's taking them.

I want to let young people know that they can contribute in multiple ways. I know so many engineers that are proud to have had a role in sending things up in the space station. And I want to be a role model for those young girls who have low self-esteem and a lack of confidence, and say, "Hey, look, I was in your shoes at one point. I had no clue what I was going to do." Not just what I was going to do, but also how to get from point A to B. How do I do it if my parents aren't involved in that world? How do I do it alone?

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RLM: Do you think that you faced specific challenges because you are a woman of color in a field that is overwhelmingly white and male?

JE: Yes, but I didn't let any of those things become my problem. At the end of the day, I had to compete with my colleagues. Sometimes I was like, "Wow, how am I going to get through this, because I don't have anyone" — especially because I came from a background where most of my family didn't do that kind of work. But I relied on my twin sister, my graduate-school colleagues, and my graduate adviser.

RLM: For most people, achieving career goals means getting a promotion, a raise, more responsibility. You're going to live in the ISS. That adds a pretty fantastical element. There are very few people who have or will ever get to do that.

JE: Yeah. It's unreal. Even now that it's closer, I'm like, I won't believe it until I'm there.

RLM: Are you going to have a specific role on the ISS?

JE: I'll be a flight engineer. We do all the research prescribed for that mission, but also all the maintenance that's onboard. The space station is getting very old, and so it requires more and more maintenance. Even that work is research though, partly because the ISS is the biggest flying experiment of all time. We're trying to keep that experiment going. My fellow flight engineer Alex Gerst and I will be experiments as well — they'll take data on our daily food intake, blood, things like that.

RLM: What are you most excited about?

JE: Just being there. And then I'm excited about the research. It's going to be amazing. One of the big things we do is genetics experiments. We also do a lot of materials testing. We have different payloads onboard, like the NanoRacks satellite and the BEAM module. The gravitational force masks so many other processes that go on here on Earth; once you take that away, you can see the real nature of things. It's amazing what we've already learned about genetics and cell structure.

RLM: What do you think it will be like to live on the ISS for six months?

JE: It's hard to think about. I've watched so many videos, and I know people who have been there, but it's still surreal. I've had dreams about it. But in my dreams, I'm never floating. It's always like, Oh, we're walking around like we are on Earth. That's because I really can't imagine what it would be like to live in weightlessness.

RLM: When you were living at the Aquarius undersea research facility for long periods of time during astronaut training, did you have moments where you'd be like, "Oh, maybe space is like this, but instead of SHARKS there are ASTEROIDS."

JE: [Laughs.] Exactly. That's why our time underwater was one of my favorite training exercises. It put me closer to space than anything else I've done. We did these analogous missions where we would pretend that we're going out on an asteroid to excavate; we'd find samples and bring them back. We were also in an environment that we couldn't just leave. We were sequestered there and then we did this seventeen-hour protocol to get the nitrogen out of our blood. We couldn't just surface and leave that habitat. I envision my time in the ISS feeling like that.

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RLM: Did your training experiences change the way you understand your relationship to the Earth?

JE: I know that when you're far above the Earth's surface, the stars of our own solar system still look very far away. That makes you think, Okay, this is one tiny solar system in our galaxy, and this galaxy is one of billions of galaxies.

It was the same thing underwater. There's so much life and movement. When we were walking out there, the fish would come up and look at us and try to figure us out. It was a unique experience, the creatures watching you while you're watching them. It makes you wonder what else is out there in deep space.

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RLM: Whoa. What was the craziest thing you saw under the sea?

JE: The giant grouper and the barracuda. That barracuda's so fast! It just whips its tail and it's gone.

RLM: Do you like wearing the space suit during training exercises?

JE: It is a great experience, but the suit is tough. It's tough for men, it's tough for women, it's tough for everyone. It's tough to manipulate it — just work it, is the best way to put it.

When we're doing the space-walk practice, we're in this giant pool, the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. The suit weighs about 310 pounds. They try to make it so we're neutrally buoyant so we don't feel that weight. But because we're in water, the suit starts absorbing moisture, and you start feeling a little bit of the weight. After six or seven hours in the suit, you're ready to get out.

I imagine in space it will be easier because you float in the suit. But the people who've done space walks say that when the space station is moving at 17,500 miles an hour and you are floating in the suit, you have to work to control it just as much as you do in the water. I am sure it will be a very otherworldly experience if I ever get a chance to do a space walk.

RLM: I'm flashing back to those vertigo-inducing scenes from Gravity. Are there films about space that you love?

JE: I love every movie about space. Recently, The Martian conveyed the risk that you take when you do an endeavor like that, and what it requires from the ground crew. It was a realistic movie to me, even though the story is pretty surreal. I also love 2001: A Space Odyssey.

RLM: I love 2001, too. In a way, it's the opposite of The Martian; it's about an abstract sense of confronting the infinite rather than the actual consequences of being stranded alone somewhere in the universe.

JE: Only as an adult have I begun to understand that monolith. It has a lot more meaning to me now that I'm an astronaut.

RLM: Do you feel like you're encountering something like the monolith in your work?

JE: On the tough days, maybe. In general, I hope to find it. I feel like we're just at the beginning of understanding what is possible. For example, we're still trying to figure out just how to live longer in space. Is it through computers, like HAL, or through medicine?

RLM: It's interesting how 2001 captures both the wondrous and the menacing aspects of technology — the apes learn how to use weapons against each other, HAL goes rogue. Do you think about the dangerous aspects of what you do?

JE: I think it was Stephen Hawking who said that if we did meet an alien, we would automatically see the menacing aspect to that person or thing. Risk is always looming over us, and that's how I see the menacing aspect of it: there is a tremendous amount of risk in everything that we do.

RLM: Do you enjoy that risk?

JE: Yes. Even though some of it has become repetitive and regular for us, each time we go up we're learning something new. We are taking baby steps, from the Earth's surface to low Earth orbit to possible engineering test beds on the moon, and then at some point, maybe to Mars. Every flight gets us closer.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Rose Lichter-Marck is a writer living in Brooklyn. She also takes pictures, some of which are posted here. You can find her on Twitter @roseolm.

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