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Astronaut Jessica Watkins will be the first Black woman to spend 6 months in space

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NASA has some big plans sending missions to the Moon and to Mars. And in April, NASA will team up with SpaceX to send a crew to the International Space Station, or the ISS. The crew will include Jessica Watkins. She's not the first Black woman to go into space but is the first Black woman to live in space for an extended period of time on the space station. We called her up as she prepared.

JESSICA WATKINS: One of the main jobs that we'll do while we're up there is science - earth and space science, which is near and dear to my heart as a geologist, biological science - so looking at cell and tissue growth and plant growth - and human research, as well. So we kind of become the lab rats ourselves and - to help us learn about the effects of long-duration spaceflight on humans, the physical effects, as well as the cognitive effects.

INSKEEP: How do you study geology from orbit?

WATKINS: So one of the main ways that we can do that is through Earth observation. So we can look through the windows and take awesome pictures. And it allows us to track changes over time and to see features that we're not able to see from other assets that we have.

INSKEEP: This is amazing. You're going to get paid to do the thing that I would most want to do if I was out there, which is just look out the window.

WATKINS: Absolutely. Absolutely.

INSKEEP: How have you prepared for this in recent months and years?

WATKINS: We do lots of training first on the International Space Station itself, so looking at the systems of the ISS, learning the ins and outs of how the ISS works to make sure that we can keep it working and know what to do if anything stops working. We train for spacewalks in particular in a giant pool where we have mockups of the modules of the International Space Station underwater. And so we can put on the, you know, big, puffy, white suit and practice moving around outside of the space station.

INSKEEP: You know, you mentioned you're a geologist, which is one of the things that qualifies you not only for this mission but for the moon mission that that seems likely to follow. Did you study geology with the idea of studying it in this way?

WATKINS: I certainly came into geology excited about the idea of studying the geology of other planets. I first kind of expressed some interest in being an astronaut when I attended an after-school enrichment program at the Sally Ride Elementary School. And so I had kind of asked my parents about who she was and what her story was. And I think that was the first time that I realized that you could actually do this as a career.

INSKEEP: Do you feel that there is a specific concrete benefit to people on Earth to what you're doing up there beyond the curiosity about what exists?

WATKINS: Absolutely. I think there are multiple benefits that we achieve from the science that we do up there. The advancements that we can make in terms of medical research - those have direct impacts into our daily lives. And then I think one of the most important things that we accomplish while we're up there is this international collaboration. We have the United States portion of the International Space Station that is docked to the Russian segment. And we're living and working every day with cosmonauts. That kind of international collaboration where we are all coming together to accomplish this really hard thing that none of us would be able to do on our own - I think that is just such a beautiful picture of what we can all do if we come together and put all of our resources and skill sets together.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about how you make that work. At some point, who knows? - you may pass over Ukraine, where it's possible the United States and Russia could be on the opposite sides of an actual war. How do you make sure that developments on Earth do not, in some way, infect or interfere with what you're trying to do in space.

WATKINS: Yeah, that's not an easy question, but it also is a question that we have have had to answer in the past. Actually, the ISS in itself and the space program in general are built off of our partnership with the Russians that came out of the Cold War, where we were pretty explicitly on opposite sides of history, if you will. And out of that conflict, we were able to create what we now have - the ISIS, you know, orbiting the Earth for over 20 years. And so that example gives me hope and encouragement that what we're doing up there can span more than some of our, you know, kind of daily politics and provides some perspective in terms of how we can put all of our differences aside and really come together.

INSKEEP: What does it mean to you that that you know that you will be the first Black woman to live on the International Space Station?

WATKINS: Yeah, you know, I think it is - it's important to recognize this as a milestone for our agency and for our country, as well, to know that we are building on the foundation that was laid by the Black woman astronauts who've come before me. I'm definitely honored to be a small part of that legacy but ultimately be a equal member of the crew.

INSKEEP: I've got to ask about that future because some people will know that you're one of 18 astronauts on a team that is preparing to travel to the Moon in 2025. Can you just explain the basics there? How many of you actually go? How's it all working? What do you expect?

WATKINS: Artemis I will be the first mission to the Moon that will happen mid this year. And that will be the first mission that will go without people first and orbit the Moon in kind of a demonstration of the vehicle and the technology that we're really ready to do this. And then following that, Artemis II will be the first crewed mission, where we'll send crew in the vehicle to orbit around the Earth. And then Artemis III will be the first mission that will actually go down to the surface and put boots on the ground.

INSKEEP: You're a geologist. You've called yourself a rock nerd, I believe. So I think this is a fair question. Do you dream about picking up moon rocks?

WATKINS: Oh, man, it's - absolutely is the answer to that question. You know, we've looked at lots of images and even looked at samples that the Apollo astronauts brought back. But to be able to be a real field geologist on the surface of another planet would just be unreal.

INSKEEP: Jessica Watkins, thanks for taking the time. And good luck to you.

WATKINS: Thank you so much. It was great talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH THE ILLSTRUMENTALIST'S "DRACO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.