Technology

Jeanette Epps will finally go to space six years after being pulled from flight


Russian cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin, astronaut Michael Barrett, commander Matthew Dominick, and mission specialist Jeanette Epps make up the Crew-8 mission.
Enlarge / Russian cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin, astronaut Michael Barrett, commander Matthew Dominick, and mission specialist Jeanette Epps make up the Crew-8 mission.

NASA

NASA confirmed on Friday that Jeanette Epps, a former CIA technology intelligence officer selected as an astronaut in 2009, will finally launch into space in early 2024 on a SpaceX flight to the International Space Station. The crew assignment comes six years after NASA pulled Epps from what would have been her first spaceflight, just months before her scheduled launch to the space station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

The removal of Epps from the Soyuz mission in 2018 raised a lot of questions. It’s not the first time NASA has pulled an astronaut off of space missions soon before launch, but it’s usually for medical reasons, like an illness or an injury.

That wasn’t the case for Epps, who was replaced by a backup crew member on the Soyuz flight in 2018. NASA never publicly stated a reason for the crew change. Some people outside the agency theorized Epps might have been removed from her flight for political or racial reasons—she would have become the first Black astronaut to fly a long-duration stint on the space station—but Ars has reported that did not appear to be the case.

Back in the saddle

Epps will fly to the space station on SpaceX’s Crew-8 mission, scheduled for launch in February 2024 to start an expedition lasting approximately six months in orbit. She will serve as a mission specialist on the Crew-8 mission, and once on the station, as a flight engineer performing maintenance and scientific research.

NASA named first-time space flier Matthew Dominick, a former US Navy test pilot, as commander of the Crew-8 mission. Veteran astronaut Michael Barrett will take the pilot’s seat inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft for the flight to the space station. Epps and rookie Russian cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin round out the crew.

After being pulled off the Soyuz mission in 2018, Epps returned from Russia to NASA’s astronaut training base in Houston to await another assignment. In her public remarks after NASA removed her from the Soyuz crew, She was clearly disappointed. “It is something that I live with every day,” Epps said in 2018.

But she declined to “speculate” publicly on the reason for NASA’s decision. She said she passed all of her NASA and Russian training for the mission. “I didn’t have any medical conditions or anything like that,” Epps said in 2018. “And I didn’t have any family issues at all, either.”

NASA did make Epps eligible for future flight assignments fairly soon after she lost her Soyuz seat. In 2020, NASA added Epps to the crew slated to fly Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule on its first operational mission to the space station, but NASA later reassigned her to train for a SpaceX launch after continued delays on Boeing’s Starliner program, which has not yet put any astronauts into space.

Epps is the only member of NASA’s 2009 astronaut class who hasn’t yet flown in space. Some astronauts in the 2009 class have already flown twice.

She would likely have flown on SpaceX’s Crew-5 mission last year. But NASA and Russia’s space agency signed a long-planned barter agreement to allow SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to begin ferrying Russian cosmonauts to and from the space station and give US astronauts seats on Russian Soyuz flights. That meant a Russian cosmonaut took the open seat on the Crew-5 mission.

Now she will get her chance to fly in space on Crew-8, which will replace the three astronauts and one cosmonaut currently in final training for launch to the space station on SpaceX’s Crew-7 mission no earlier than August 25. Crew-7 will replace the Crew-6 mission that has been on the station since March, as SpaceX’s crew rotation flights keep the orbiting research lab permanently staffed.