Former Caltech assistant coach Jessica Watkins becomes the first Black woman to spend months in space

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Back in 2017, Jessica Watkins became a member of NASA’s astronaut class. Fast forward to this month, and the former Caltech women’s basketball assistant coach and rugby national champion is the first Black woman to spend months in space, standing on the shoulders of African-American space pioneer Dr. Mae Jemison, who was the first Black woman to travel in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992.1

“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,” Watkins said to NPR in an interview before her journey.

The 33-year-old Watkins, who played intramural basketball while an undergraduate at Stanford, entered the astronaut program from a pool of 18,300 applicants. MIT women’s basketball alumna Jasmin Moghbel was also in the 2017 class. However, Watkins is among an elite group of four NASA astronauts who are traveling on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station (ISS). The flight departed at 3:52 a.m. EDT this morning from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They will join NASA astronauts of the Expedition 67 crew already at the ISS. The Crew-4 team aims to spend about five or six months in space.

From NASA:

This Crew-4 mission is the first launch for Hines and Watkins, and the second flight to the station for Lindgren and Cristoforetti. It launched in a new Dragon spacecraft, named Freedom by the crew, and a Falcon 9 booster flying its fourth mission into space. This is the fifth SpaceX flight with NASA astronauts – including the Demo-2 test flight in 2020 to the space station – as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

During Dragon’s flight, SpaceX will monitor a series of automatic spacecraft maneuvers from its mission control center in Hawthorne, California, and NASA teams will monitor space station operations throughout the flight from the Mission Control Center at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Dragon will dock autonomously to the space-facing port of the station’s Harmony module around 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 27. NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website are providing ongoing live coverage through docking, and hatch opening. NASA also will cover the ceremony to welcome the crew aboard the orbital outpost about 2:40 a.m. on Thursday, April 28.


The Crew-4 astronauts will spend several months aboard the space station conducting new scientific research in areas such as materials science, health technologies, and plant science to prepare for human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and to benefit life on Earth.

Watkins grew up in Lafayette, Colorado. She graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in geological and environmental sciences, then went on to earn a doctorate in geology from UCLA. Watkins has worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology where she was a member of the science team for the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity.

She is also a member of the NASA team for a planned expedition called Artemis that aims to land humans on the moon again and build a base camp on the lunar surface.

“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”

Follow Watkins’ journey on the Crew-4 blog at

1NASA selected Dr. Jemison for its 1987 astronaut class. She spent about eight days in space and orbited the earth 127 times.

Crew-4 Astronauts Reach International Space Station

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