Meet Jessica Watkins, the sole Black woman in NASA’s newest class of astronaut candidates who’s slated to take Black Girl Magic to infinity and beyond — or at least to Mars.
On June 7, the space agency announced its first class of astronaut candidates since 2013, boasting 12 notable candidates from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and fields of study, the Huffington Post reported. Watkins, 29, was among the latest crop of aspiring space travelers who beat out over 18,000 other applicants — the most NASA has ever had — to be picked for the 2017 class.
The LaFayette, Colo., native earned her undergraduate degree from Stanford University, where she briefly majored in mechanical engineering before shifting gears to focus her studies on planetary geology. She went on to earn her doctorate in geology from UCLA, after which she began working with the Mars Curiosity rover team, according to NASA.
In a recent interview with SyFyWire, Watkins expressed excitement at the opportunity to aid NASA in its efforts to diversify the world of STEM.
“I’m very excited about the diversity on this team, this amazing group of people,” she said. “I think that says a lot about NASA and their goals toward creating a diverse workforce. … The team at NASA is just an amazing group of people, and so to continue to bring in more diversity is just making NASA even more spectacular.
“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,” Watkins continued. “And then, the other side of that … is the idea of being able to be a face to others who might not see people who look like them in STEM fields in general, and doing cool things like going to space.”
Before being selected for the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class, the young geologist worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center, as well as its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, according to the space agency’s website. Watkins also has amassed a mile-long list of honors and awards over the years, including the NASA Group Achievement Award (2015), the Caltech Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences Chair’s Postdoctoral Fellowship (2015) and the Geological Society of America Diversity in the Geosciences Minority Research Grant Award (2011).
“Since the age of 9, I wanted to be an astronaut,” Watkins told BET. “I was originally inspired by an after-school enrichment program at Judith Resnik Elementary.”
Now, Watkins says she’s passionate about encouraging young girls to venture into the world of STEM, just as she was encouraged. She recommended that girls interested in STEM seek a female mentor to help them out along the way.
“That’s something that has really pushed me to this point in my life,” she told SyFyWire. “I’ve been really grateful and lucky to have the mentorship support that I have received from a lot of my teachers and professors and supervisors. That’s been something that’s really important for me, and I think helps with that idea of persistence. Having a mentor who can continue to push you and encourage you in a STEM field is really helpful.”
The new class of astronauts is set to begin its two-year training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in August, where they’ll learn everything from robotics training to the International Space Station systems and space walks, according to the Huffington Post.
Watkins is well on her way to becoming the sixth Black woman to go into space, joining the ranks of industry pioneers like Yvonne Darlene Cagle, Mae Jemison, Joan E. Higginbotham, Stephanie D. Wilson and last, but not least, Jeanette J. Epps.