NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps still doesn’t know why she was removed from her first assignment to go to space.
Epps, an aerospace engineer and former CIA analyst, joined the astronaut corps in 2009. She had been assigned to be a flight engineer aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for Expeditions 56 and 57. The mission would have been her first, and Epps would have made history as the first African-American crewmember to live on the ISS.
However, in January, NASA revealed that Epps had been replaced by fellow astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor. On June 6, Auñón-Chancellor launched inside a Russian Soyuz capsule from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan alongside cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, of Germany.
Epps said other astronauts in the past had been bumped from flight assignments because of health or family issues, but those were not factors in her case. She said she had passed all of her exams and the training needed to go to space.
“With all of the training I had done and completed in Houston, Russia, Germany, Japan—everything was completed,” Epps said. She expressed worry that all of the work to prepare her for a Russian launch could go to waste if she is not reassigned for another mission soon.
“I think what is happening soon is that we’re going to run out of Soyuz seats, because we are building commercial crew vehicles through Elon Musk’s SpaceX and through Boeing,” Epps said. “We’ll have fewer and fewer seats on the Soyuz, so I’m not sure if, in the future, if I am assigned a mission, it will be on a Soyuz, even though all the training for Russia has been completed.”
Epps said she did not believe the decision was made by her Russian colleagues.
“I’ve been through the training with them, and I think I was able to develop really good working relationships with everyone there,” Epps said.
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.”
While she is waiting for more information, Epps said she has resumed her duties with the astronaut corps in Houston, including working on NASA’s Orion program and serving as CAPCOM, the liaison between the astronauts in space and the flight controllers in Mission Control. She said it was a “pleasant surprise” to have former astronauts, her trainers and others at NASA supporting her when she returned from Russia.
“There were a lot of people who were really supportive — former astronauts and people like that — who reached out and were really helpful just talking to me, trying to figure out a way forward and what happened,” Epps said. “I was very happy that I found out that I had more friends than I thought.”