In perhaps the most surprising crew assignment of the year, NASA has selected unflown astronaut Jeanette Epps to join the crew of the first operational Boeing CST-100 Starliner mission to the International Space Station (ISS), currently targeted for a 2021 launch. Epps, who was controversially pulled from a long-duration station increment two years ago, will serve as a Mission Specialist on the flight, alongside Commander Suni Williams and Pilot Josh Cassada, both of whom issued their congratulations Tuesday via video messages posted on their respective Twitter pages. According to NASA, a fourth crew member for the mission “is anticipated”, but unannounced at present.
Epps’ wait for space has been a long time coming. Selected in June 2009 as part of the “Chumps” astronaut class, the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) technical intelligence officer and PhD in aerospace engineering completed her initial training two years later. She was assigned in January 2017 to join Expedition 56/57, with an expectation that she would launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard Soyuz MS-09 in June 2018, shoulder-to-shoulder with Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopyev and Germany’s Alexander Gerst.
But in January 2018, she was abruptly dropped from the mission and replaced by her backup, Serena Auñón-Chancellor. NASA revealed only that Epps would return to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, “to assume duties in the Astronaut Office and be considered for assignment for future missions”.
Had she flown as intended in 2018, Epps would have become the first African-American to embark on a long-duration mission, following in the footsteps of 14 men and women—including pioneers Guy Bluford and Mae Jemison—who had flown the shuttle, helped assemble the ISS and performed spacewalks.
The reasons for Epps’ removal from Expedition 56/57 remain unclear and, unsurprisingly, garnered mutterings of racism, which the astronaut herself neither confirmed or denied, stating only that no medical condition or training issue had contributed to the decision. In any case, the first African-American to fly a long-duration mission will now be Victor Glover, pilot of the SpaceX Crew-1 mission, currently targeted to launch no earlier than 23 October.
In the aftermath, Epps worked in the Mission Support Crew Branch of the Astronaut Office, covering exploration, including the testing of the Orion crew module “and a number of other activities”, according to NASA. Just last summer, she was a crew member in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CAVES 2019 expedition, working alongside fellow spacefarers Joe Acaba, Nikolai Chub, Alexander Gerst, Josh Kutryk and Takuya Onishi from the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany and Canada in a space-analog cave environment in Sardinia.
Although a launch date for Epps’ flight has not been determined, it is expected to be at least a year away. During the troubled Orbital Flight Test (OFT) of Starliner in an uncrewed capacity last December, a series of off-nominal technical and human issues prevented a docking at the ISS and forced a premature return to Earth. Boeing subsequently decided to fly a second uncrewed OFT flight and last month a “path forward” was revealed, with OFT-2 anticipated to take place later this year or early next spring.
That will be followed by a Crew Flight Test (CFT) by Boeing test pilot and former shuttle commander Chris Ferguson and active-duty NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. Originally planned as a short test flight of a couple of weeks in duration, in April of last year, NASA and Boeing agreed to extend this mission up to six months.
However, it remains to be seen exactly how long Ferguson, Fincke and Mann will remain aboard the ISS. As such, it is also unclear how this will affect missions further downstream, including the Starliner-1 flight by Williams, Cassada, Epps and their as-yet-unannounced fourth crewmate. In remarks via Twitter, Ferguson told Epps that he was looking forward to welcoming her very soon to the Boeing factory.
But one thing is certain, the excitement among the crew is palpable. Williams and Cassada were assigned to this mission amid great fanfare in August 2018 and will serve as Commander and Pilot, respectively. Epps and her unnamed crewmate will be Mission Specialists, according to NASA.
“A huge congratulations to Dr. Jeanette Epps for joining the Starliner Team,” said veteran astronaut Williams in a video address posted on her Twitter page. “I can’t wait for her to join our crew, Starliner-1, to go to the International Space Station.” Cassada added a few words of his own. “A huge congratulations to my friend and new crewmate, Jeanette Epps,” he began. “I am so excited to have you join us for riding the Atlas V, flying the Starliner to the International Space Station and then living and working there for six months.”
But Cassada has a couple of caveats. “Just a couple things I think we need to get sorted out,” he told her. “I know we both claim Michigan, so I’m not gonna arm-wrestle you for it; I’ve seen you in the gym. So maybe we can split it. If you take down-state, I’ll take Northern Michigan or we can split it east-west; we can use I-75. I think the only thing we need to get sorted out is on Starliner, I call shotgun!”
As for Epps herself, after such a long wait for space, she appeared beaming in her own Twitter message. “I’m super excited to join Suni Williams and Josh Cassada on the first operational Boeing crew mission to the International Space Station,” she said. “I’ve flown in helicopters with Suni flying and I’ve flown in the backseat of a T-38 with Josh flying and they are both wonderful people to work with.”