NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps, who was slated to be the first African-American spacefarer to serve as a long-term crew member on the International Space Station until she was pulled from the roster in January, is still waiting on an explanation as to why.
Jeanette Epps undergoing spacewalk training at Johnson Space Center in 2014. Photo: NASA (AP)
Epps, who holds a PhD in aerospace engineering and previously worked with Ford Motors and the CIA, first qualified as an astronaut candidate in 2009 and has been training for space ever since.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Epps recently told reporter Megan Gannon at the Tech Open Air Festival that she believed NASA, not an official with Russia's Roscosmos space agency, made the call to pull her off the June 6 mission. But whoever changed the roster has decided she is best left in the dark about why, the Chronicle wrote:
"I don't know where the decision came from and how it was made, in detail or at what level ... I seriously do not believe it was the Russians, partly because I had been through the training with them and I was able to develop good working relationships with everyone there," Epps said. "There were Russians, several of them, who defended me in the sense that its not safe to really remove someone from a crew that has trained together for years."
Epps' replacement, astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan this month alongside crew from Roscosmos and the European Space Agency.
Per Space.com, Epps also said that she is sure she did not fail to qualify as a result of health or family reasons, and that "everything was completed" with respect to her qualifications. She also expressed her worry that because NASA currently leases human transport to the ISS on Russian Soyuz aircraft at exorbitant prices, a relationship expected to end before Boeing's CST-100 Starliner or SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule will likely be ready, her extensive cross-training with the Russians to operate the Soyuz could go to waste.
NASA never publicly explained the situation, referring to the astronaut selection process as "personnel matters for which NASA doesn't provide information," per The Verge. It gave the same explanation to the Chronicle this week.
During the interview, Epps distanced herself from the widespread speculation that racism or sexism could have played a role in her removal from the mission, Space.com wrote:
"There's no time to really be concerned about sexism and racism and things like that, because we have to perform," Epps said. "And if it comes into play, then you're hindering the mission, and you're hindering the performance. And so whether or not it is a factor, I can't speculate what people are thinking and doing unless I have a little bit more information."
As The Washington Post noted, though some including her brother Henry Epps believed bigotry was behind the decision, "last-minute crew changes are not unusual at NASA".
Though there have been 14 black astronauts, including three women, Epps would have been the first to stay on the ISS for a lengthy period of time.
"There have been three African-Americans who have visited ISS, but they haven't done the long-duration mission that I am undertaking," Epps told The Cut last year. "I'll be the one spending the longest time on the ISS. As a steward, I want to do well with this honour."
Space.com added that in the meantime, Epps has been spending her time working on NASA's Orion program and CAPCOM, which helps coordinate the activities of astronauts on missions and Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston.