When she launches to the International Space Station later this month, Jessica Watkins ’10 will become the first Black woman to embark on an extended space mission.
Watkins will board Space X’s brand-new Dragon spacecraft, “Freedom,” and spend six months at the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the SpaceX Crew 4 mission — NASA’s fourth commercial mission to the ISS.
Millions of miles below, countless viewers from around the world will be tuned in to watch the launch. Among those fixated to their screens will be a handful of people who knew Watkins as an avid scholar, a fearless rugby player and a student leader — her former peers and mentors who she met as an undergraduate at Stanford.
Though the launch was previously slated for April 15, multiple delays announced by NASA have pushed the earliest potential launch date to April 26. The delays are a result of schedule changes for the landing of the Axiom Mission 1 crew, which is now planned to undock from the ISS on April 23.
Watkins will be joined by three other crew members: Kjell N. Lindgren, a board-certified emergency medicine doctor who has previously participated in two spacewalks aboard NASA Expedition 44/45, Robert Hines, who was a NASA and a U.S. Air Force pilot, and Samantha Cristoforetti, who is the first Italian woman in space and held a record for the single longest spaceflight by a woman until 2017.
In preparation for the mission, Watkins has forged her own unique role within the four-person team.
“You learn to find the different ways that you contribute to the group,” she said. “I think for me it’s been interesting and fun to get to see how I insert myself into the crew.”
An astronaut on the Farm
Watkins came to Stanford as an undergraduate in 2006 with her heart already dead set on a future in space. While studying geological and environmental sciences, Watkins met geological sciences professor Donald Lowe. The two shared an interest in Martian soil — a mutual fascination that formed the basis for Watkins’ undergraduate thesis, which Lowe agreed to advise.
Lowe said Watkins was more determined than most of her classmates: “She walked into my office one time and said she was going to be an astronaut. I was a little skeptical,” he said. “99 out of 100 young people who want to be astronauts are not going to become astronauts for a variety of reasons. But I quickly learned that there was no dissuading Jessica.”
Aside from academics, Watkins was a core member of the Stanford women’s rugby team for four years, highlighted by a national championship win in 2008. Despite picking up the sport as a frosh, Watkins rose to become one of the top players in the country by her sophomore year, scoring on the final play of the national championship game. Her time with the team continues to influence her today.
“Being a team player is a really important part of what we do and I learned the best from the Stanford women’s rugby team,” Watkins said.
While at Stanford, Watkins also made an impression on Jack Lissauer, a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center and a geological sciences professor at Stanford. Lissauer met Watkins when she was a student in his class, GEOLSCI 221: “What Makes a Habitable Planet?.”
Watkins possessed a “very outgoing personality” and was “very memorable,” Lissauer said.
“It was clear just in terms of her abilities to juggle so many things that she was going to go places,” he added.
After Stanford, Watkins completed her Ph.D. in geology at UCLA before becoming a postdoctoral researcher in geological and planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology. As a trained geologist and mission specialist, Watkins will be conducting research from the ISS.
“We can use Earth as an analog or laboratory to explore and understand surfaces of other planets,” Watkins said. “We can look at features and landforms and processes that happen on the Earth and then be able to apply that to other planetary bodies. So to be able to do that from [the] ISS is really exciting.”
Apart from planetary geology, Crew-4 will address broader scientific inquiries, such as investigating the way cells and tissues grow, looking into new techniques for plant root growth and monitoring the cognitive and physical effects of long-duration space flights on humans, Watkins said.
To meet the mission’s objectives, the astronauts will have to follow a strict schedule.
“We all have a timeline that gets uploaded the night before, and we each have all our activities outlined for the day,” Watkins said. “There’s a whole ground team of people that put in a lot of work to ensure that we’re maximizing our efficiency and getting everything we can out of every minute that we have the crew up there on getting the most fruitful science and maintenance done.”
While the current mission has been years in the making, the preparation process has come at a whirlwind pace. Watkins was first assigned to the mission in November 2021, more than half a year later than some of the other team members.
“It all happened very quickly,” she said. “Now that we’re in the ramp-up towards launching the mission, [I’m] excited about really making sure I fully appreciate the moment and everything that everyone in my life has contributed to help me get to this moment.”
When she leaves the Earth’s atmosphere, Watkins will solidify her place among a historic list of Stanford female space pioneers that includes Sally Ride ’73 M.S. ’75 Ph.D. ’78, Mae Jemison ’77, Tammy Jernigan ’78 and Ellen Ochoa M.S. ’81 Ph.D. ’85.
More recent alumni, Nicole Mann M.S. ’01 and Kate Rubins Ph.D. ’06, are joining Watkins in the Artemis team that is preparing for humanity’s return to the moon in 2024.
Until 1991, no Black American woman had traveled to space. Jemison was the first.
For Stanford Student Space Initiative co-president Ahmed Abdalla ’22, trailblazers like Watkins and Jemison are sources of inspiration:
“To be able to imagine yourself doing something, you have to be able to see examples,” he said. “The example that they set is going to lead a generation of people who are inspired to do things that they otherwise might not have been able to.”
With Watkins’s launch date fast approaching, the significance of the moment has not left her mind. “When I think about legacy, I think about the legacy that I get to be a part of — the kind of legacy of astronauts that have come before me and laid the foundation and created a pathway for me to be here now,” she said.
“I just hope to be able to contribute to that same pathway going forward,” Watkins said. “Our future is super exciting as they start to pave the way to the moon and Mars with the Artemis program. I’m definitely excited about that.”
Nikolas Liepins contributed reporting to this article.