NASA has removed astronaut Jeanette Epps, who would have been the first African-American long-term crew member of the International Space Station (ISS), from her scheduled mission to the habitable artificial satellite just months before launch, replacing her with a white female astronaut.
Forty-seven-year-old Epps earned a doctorate in aerospace engineering in 2000 and became an astronaut nine years later. In January last year, NASA announced that she would become the first African-American ISS crew member on her first spaceflight in June 2018, as she was assigned as a flight engineer to Expedition 56/57.
However, the US space agency announced on Thursday that Epps would be replaced by Serena Aunon-Chancellor, a medical doctor, who was previously assigned to Expedition 58/59. It provided no reason for pulling Epps from the flight but said she would be considered for future missions.
Meanwhile, NASA’s spokesperson Brandi Dean said that “a number of factors are considered when making flight assignments; decisions are personnel matters for which NASA doesn’t provide information.”
Other African-American astronauts, including Leland Melvin, have visited the Space Station. But Epps would have been the first to become a long-term crew member, living and working on the low-orbit station for months at a time.
Epps was a member of NASA’s 20th class of astronauts, a group of nine known as the “Chumps”, who were selected in June 2009. Of this group, seven astronauts have already flown into space. Serena Aunon-Chancellor was serving as Epps’ backup for the upcoming mission.
Epps was due to launch to the orbiting outpost from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, aboard a Soyuz rocket along with European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Alexander Gerst from Germany and the flight’s commander, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopev.
Before becoming an astronaut, Epps worked as a technical intelligence officer for seven years for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) upon completing her doctorate. Her time with the CIA included deployments to Iraq.
“I get very excited when I think about being up in space, partly because I compare it to going into a war zone,” she said in an interview with Elle magazine last year, adding, “Both are very dangerous but, for me, it’s a no-brainer: I would rather face the dangers in space than go back to a war zone.”