Jeanette Epps has wanted to be an astronaut since she was nine years old. Epps credits her older brother with planting the seed of space exploration. It was a pivotal time for women in space, with Sally Ride and other female astronauts beginning to make headlines. “My brother said to my twin sister Gina and me, ‘You should probably become aerospace engineers or maybe even astronauts,'” she recalls. “I thought, ‘They’ll never pick me to be an astronaut, but this aerospace thing, yeah, that I can do.'” “
Diving into academics, the Epps sisters earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a masters and PhDs in aerospace engineering. There were obstacles and insecurities to battle along the way. Such as, “Getting over the fact that our parents weren’t scientists or engineers when the students in our classes had parents generations of family members who were scientists and engineers.” Also daunting — moving from a small school to one with 40,000 students.
A question that plagued Epps: “How do we compete with these people?” How do we get through this? It was then she adopted a new mindset. “I can reach my end goal. I can do this.” She encourages others with life passions to embrace this thinking.
After pursuing academics for over 11 years, Epps entered the workforce with a position at Ford Motor Company. Unexpectedly, the job led to a career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “When you get an offer from the CIA to go work there, you take them up on it.”
For seven years, Epps worked as a CIA fighter aircraft analyst, then as a technical operations office in the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DST). She found the projects she was involved with thrilling. “It’s amazing how much good they [the CIA] do for the country.”
All the while, her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut was buzzing in the back of her subconscious. Epps knew the road to becoming an astronaut was highly competitive and chances were slim. Then, in 2008, a friend alerted — the Astronaut Corps was accepting applications. At 38 years old, Epps decided it was time to take the leap. “I never thought that they’d actually select me, but they did.”
That leap paid off. In 2009, Jeanette Epps became a member of the 20th class of US Astronauts. Her role has been mind-bending. “These analog missions simulate what we would do if we went to the moon, landed on an asteroid or something like that,” she says. “It’s otherworldly, there are so many things we do that aren’t done in any other careers,” she says. “Living underwater, c’mon, I mean, who does that?!”
The role has found her living in a habitat 50 feet under the sea for nine days for NASA’s NEEMO experiment, learning to speak Russian and flying in T38 fighter jets. Then there was spending five nights in a Slovenian cave. “You’re mapping out the cave, looking for micro bio creatures that grow in environments that are completely dark,” she says. “They have no eyes and a lot of little legs and appendages because that’s how they see the world — through feeling.”
A typical 10-hour-day for Epps will find her waking up early for a workout, taking a Russian language class, then a refresher course on systems aboard the International Space Station, followed by pool time, where she practices space walking.
For all of Epps success, what she considers her biggest obstacle: herself. Her manner of changing that is something she highly suggests tapping in to. “Faith that you can do this and go forward.”
Epps hopes to inspire young women and men to pursue their passions and put in the time it requires to achieve their goals. Her advice to kids: Don’t give up when things get hard, and don’t expect overnight success.
“Don’t let something stop you because it’s hard,” she says. “Put it the time and effort to learn everything you need, then it will be easy.”
We can’t wait to see reports from Epps when she makes it into space.
About Redefining Rosie
Astronaut Jeanette Epps, a boundary breaker in myriad ways, is a prime example of the outstanding women featured in Redefining Rosie: Cool Women, Uncommon Jobs.
Parentology created this series to celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Due to COVID, the series was halted midstream, but is reemerging. so readers can learn about these remarkable women in the workforce around the world — and in outer space. Check out our other profiles in the Redefining Rosie hub.