'I think it really is just a tribute to the legacy of the Black women astronauts that have come before me, as well as to the exciting future ahead.'
NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins made history on Wednesday by becoming the first Black woman to depart for an extended mission to the International Space Station. The 33-year-old geologist from Colorado and three other astronauts rocketed into space from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, at 3:52 a.m. EDT as part of SpaceX's Crew-4 mission, a six-month journey to the space station. Speaking to NPR prior to her assignment, Watkins—who is the fifth Black woman to ever travel to space—said of her accomplishment: "I think it really is just a tribute to the legacy of the Black women astronauts that have come before me, as well as to the exciting future ahead."
Jessica Watkins, a Fairview High School Alumni, is on her way to the International Space Station (ISS). She is the first Black woman to serve at the ISS. You are a true role model! https://t.co/yEwwpBoq5n#BVSD #BVSDproud #NASA pic.twitter.com/cF0VNyIlvb— Boulder Valley School District (@BVSDcolorado) April 27, 2022
According to USA Today, NASA announced in November that Watkins would be the fourth and final member aboard Crew Dragon for the Crew-4 mission. With this assignment, she becomes the first Black woman to join an ISS crew for scientific research, station maintenance, training and more over a period of several months orbiting the earth via the spacecraft. Previously, Victor Glover, part of SpaceX's Crew-2 mission that launched in November 2020, became the first Black astronaut to join a station crew.
Liftoff! 🚀— USA Rugby (@USARugby) April 27, 2022
Jessica Watkins, former USA Sevens Eagle, is on her way to the International Space Station and will be the first Black woman to complete a long-term mission aboard the ISS. pic.twitter.com/7JUaakah83
Born in Maryland, Watkins earned a bachelor's degree from Stanford University and a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, reports PEOPLE. She began her career within the space agency as an intern before working at various research centers in California. She served as a post-doctoral fellow on the science team for the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity during her astronaut selection in 2017. In a video released by NASA last year, Watkins revealed that the expedition into space has been a dream of hers since she was in elementary school.
Jessica Watkins is set to become the first Black woman to serve a long duration mission on the International Space Station. Watkins is potentially on track to take on upcoming moon missions.— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) April 26, 2022
More from the interview with @LesterHoltNBC: https://t.co/MHDebsf1Et pic.twitter.com/cfEDz4c3EP
"A dream feels like a big faraway goal that's going to be difficult to achieve or something you might achieve much later in life," Watkins shared. "But in reality, what a dream realized is just one putting one foot in front of the other on a daily basis. If you put enough of those footprints together, eventually they become a path towards your dreams." While Watkins' mission has drawn praise from diversity and inclusion experts, it also highlights how far Black women still have to go in the white, male-dominated profession.
"You know there's not enough of us. Women are underrepresented in science, although it's getting better in some ways," Mae Jemison, who became the first Black woman to go to space in 1992, told NBC News. "There is a lot of gatekeeping, both conscious and unconscious, that keeps people out. But once you are there, it's 'where do you fit?' People hold you to a stereotype of what they consider a scientist. There's this unrelenting requirement that you prove you have the right to be there. Many times I think that we achieve in these fields in spite of, not because of."
VIDEO: Hugs and all smiles as SpaceX Crew-4 mission welcomed at ISS.— AFP News Agency (@AFP) April 28, 2022
A SpaceX Dragon capsule carrying Americans Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, and Italian Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, docks at the International Space Station pic.twitter.com/cQY3jmcD9u
Watkins has now become the fifth Black woman to have gone to space. She follows in the footsteps of Jemison, Stephanie Wilson—who, at more than 42 days, has spent more time in space than any other Black woman, Joan Higginbotham and Sian Proctor, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft. Aside from Watkins, NASA's mission also includes two other NASA astronauts—Robert Hines and Kjell Lindgren—as well as European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.