Meet Jessica Watkins, The Only Black Woman In NASA’s Newest Astronaut Class

Watch out, universe. NASA’s newest class of astronauts includes one woman with some serious black girl magic.

NASA announced its first class of astronaut candidates since 2013 on Wednesday. The twelve candidates from various backgrounds and fields of study met some pretty rigorous requirements and made it to the top of the pool of 18,300 applicants, a record number for NASA. Among them is one black woman: Jessica Watkins.

Watkins, a 29-year-old geologist from Lafayette, Colorado, told Blastr that she’s excited about NASA’s efforts to diversify STEM.

“I’m very excited about the diversity on this team, this amazing group of people. I think that says a lot about NASA and their goals towards creating a diverse workforce,” she said. “I think the thing about diversity is that it allows for experiences that may not be exactly the same to bring different things to the table. And then the other side of that… is the idea of being able to be a face to others who may not see people who look like them in STEM fields in general, and doing cool things like going to space.”

Watkins said that she always knew that she wanted to be an astronaut. After majoring in mechanical engineering at Stanford and admitting that wasn’t her passion, she shifted gears and started studying planetary geology. After completing her doctorate in geology at UCLA, Watkins began working on the Mars Curiosity rover, according to NASA.

The new class will begin their two-year training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in August. While training, the candidates will learn a range of lessons, including on the International Space Station systems, robotics training, space walks, the Russian language and flight training.

Some of the candidates could participate in the Orion mission, which aims to send men and women to Mars. Watkins, who worked on the Mars Curiosity rover, has a good chance of being one of those to set foot on the planet. She told the Lafayette News that she’s “excited about contributing to” NASA’s expansion of human presence in space.

Watkins told Blastr that she’s passionate about encouraging young girls to pursue a career in STEM. She advises girls who are interested to get a mentor, especially a female mentor, to help them.

“That is something that has really pushed me to this point in my life,” she said. “I’ve been really grateful and lucky to have the mentorship support that I’ve received from a lot of my teachers and professors and supervisors. That’s been something that’s really important for me, and I think help with that idea of persistence, having a mentor who can continue to push you and encourage you in a STEM field is really helpful.”

Black astronauts are few and far in between in the history of NASA. But Watkins is in good company with the five black women who’ve made their mark including Mae Jemison, Yvonne Darlene Cagle, Stephanie D. Wilson, Joan E. Higginbotham and, more recently, Jeanette J. Epps.

Credit: Taryn Finley
Black Voices Associate Editor, HuffPost

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