To the moon
Photos courtesy of NASA November 20, 2020
Astronaut Jeanette Epps shares with Delaware students what it takes to get to space
Neil Armstrong called his first moonwalk a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind. More than 50 years later, it is womankind who will take this lunar leap.
By 2024, as part of its Artemis Program, NASA aims to land a female astronaut on this cratered orb. That scientist is Jeanette Epps, an aerospace engineer who spoke to more than 250 of Delaware’s stargazing students via a virtual conversation in late October.
“This time, we’re taking the other half of the population along with us,” Epps told the crowd. “It’s going to be so much more inclusive. Everyone is involved — we’re going to have other nations involved with getting us back to the moon. And we’re going to stay there. We’re going to live and work on the moon.”
In his opening remarks, Delaware U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, who co-hosted the event, thanked the astronaut for what she is doing to “expand the boundaries of human knowledge and exploration” and for bringing the excitement of this exploration to so many “incredible young minds in Delaware.” Some of these young minds? Middle and high school students involved with FAME, an academic-enrichment organization that prepares K-12 pupils for careers in science, technology, education and math. Additional students tuned in from institutes of higher education, including the University of Delaware, which administers the Delaware Space Grant Consortium. The organizer of this online discussion, the consortium provides financial support and training for NASA hopefuls.
“Open your minds to the new frontiers offered by a career in STEM fields, keep them open and take these opportunities to learn and grow,” urged Delaware Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, who is also a UD nursing professor. “You are the next generation of leaders that will guide us.”
NASA Administrator and event co-host Jim Bridenstine shared a little background about the Artemis program, the ultimate goal of which is to gather information that will allow for the next item on an interstellar to-do list: sending humans to Mars.
“I know there are young people out there who might one day want to go to Mars, and there is going to be an opportunity to do that — I really, really believe that,” Bridenstine said, adding that “the probability of finding life on another world keeps going up. It is important that we work every day with our international partners to put together a coalition that can go and make these very important discoveries, because… it will crack open how much we still don’t know and how much is left to discover and learn.”
For Epps, who previously worked for the Ford Motor Company and the Central Intelligence Agency, contributions to this future of discovery will include a six-month stint on the International Space Station in 2021, meaning she will become the first Black woman to live and work long term in the galactic laboratory. In order to accomplish this, she has undergone extensive training. This includes flying a T-38 supersonic jet (which requires performing at a high level in a tight space), learning Russian (to understand many of the Space Station controls), undergoing field-medical instruction (since there won’t be a medical doctor onboard her missions) and studying geology (that knowledge will be important for information gathering on the moon).
As part of an extreme-environment training protocol, Epps has also lived in a Slovenian cave for five days and in an underwater habitat 62 feet below the ocean’s surface for nine days, which mimics an “other-worldly” experience. (Coincidentally, she said, living underwater is not all that different than coronavirus (COVID-19) quarantining, since communication with the outside world is limited to virtual mediums in both circumstances.)
“I want to urge you to picture yourself doing all of these things,” Epps told the students. “Because if I’m doing these things, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t.”
So what is the point of all this effort? And why should humans care so much about an investment in the final frontier?
In space, certain medical advancements — like developing immunizations or even, potentially, growing new body parts — may be easier to achieve.
“We can use your own skin cells to create your own tissue in the microgravity of space,” Bridenstine said. “If we try to do it in the gravity well of Earth, the tissue just goes flat. But if we do it in space, it can grow in three dimensions, and that opens up all kinds of opportunities for us to do significant things — eventually maybe even creating your own organs for you.”
At the end of the session, Epps took questions from students. Jennifer Mills, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in chemical engineering at UD and a Space Grant Fellow, wanted to know about the backgrounds of astronauts who get selected for missions to outer space — what is key to success? While Epps said there is no specific recipe — and no specific college major — something all astronauts share in common is an ability to “learn how to learn. Being adaptable and flexible is very important.”
And it doesn’t hurt to be a bit of a dreamer, either.
“I want to make sure you guys understand that you are the Artemis generation,” Epps said. “I encourage you to follow your dreams, and know they can take you to unexpected, wonderful places — even the moon.”