If you had a choice, would you rather go to the moon or to Mars?
The question is entirely theoretical for most of us, but it’s a little different for US astronaut Jessica Watkins.
“Whichever comes first!” Watkins says with a laugh from her post on the International Space Station (ISS) in a lengthy interview with AFP.
At 34, Watkins has many years ahead of him at NASA and could very well be one of the first women to set foot on the moon in the years to come as a member of the Artemis team preparing for upcoming lunar missions put .
Missions to Mars are off in the future, but given that astronauts often work well into their 50s, Watkins could potentially have a chance.
Both are fine, she says.
“I would certainly be absolutely thrilled to be part of the effort to get to another planetary surface, be it the moon or Mars.”
Meanwhile, Watkins’ first space flight has made history: she was the first black woman to complete a long-term stay on the ISS, where she had already spent three months as a mission specialist, three months ahead of her.
The Apollo missions that sent humans to the moon were staffed exclusively by white males, and NASA has sought to expand its recruitment to a more diverse group of candidates over the years.
The agency now wants to put both women and people of color on the moon.
“I think it’s an important milestone for the agency and for the country and also for the world,” says Watkins. “Representation is important. It’s true that it’s difficult to be what you don’t see.”
The Maryland native added that she was “grateful for everyone who came before me…the women and black astronauts who paved the way for me to be here today.”
– geologist at heart –
Born in Gaithersburg in suburban Washington, Watkins grew up in Colorado before going to California to study geology at Stanford University.
During her doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, her research focused on Mars, among other things, and she worked on the NASA rover Curiosity, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary on the red planet.
Watkins still has a soft spot for Mars. In fact, while on the ISS, she published a scientific study on the planet.
“I would definitely describe myself as a geologist, scientist, astronaut,” she says.
Watkins recalls the moment she realized that space and planetary geology—the composition of the formation of celestial bodies such as planets, moons, and asteroids—would be her life’s work.
It came during one of her first geology classes, in a lecture on planetary accretion, or when solids gradually collide with each other to form larger bodies and eventually planets.
“I remember learning about this process…and then realizing I wanted to spend the rest of my life studying,” she recalls.
“The idea of being part of an effort to actually conduct field research on the surface of another planetary body is super exciting and I look forward to being a part of it.”
The Artemis program, a successor to Apollo, aims to slowly establish a permanent human presence on the moon. The ultimate goal is the establishment of a base that would serve as a forward operations station for eventual voyages to Mars.
The first unmanned mission under the Artemis banner is scheduled to take off for the moon at the end of August.
Watkins is one of 18 astronauts assigned to the Artemis team to either provide ground support or eventually fly.
Officially, every active NASA astronaut (currently there are 42) has a chance to be selected to take part in a moon landing.
– ‘Pushing the limits’ –
While previous mission experience strongly influences NASA’s personnel selection for the first manned Artemis flight, Watkins’ academic background should certainly increase her chances of selection.
Good nature and a healthy team spirit are also important for space teams that spend long periods in confined spaces.
Watkins says her peers describe her as “easygoing” and her time in rugby taught her the importance of working in a team.
So how does she define being an astronaut?
“All of us have this sense of exploration and desire to keep pushing the boundaries of what humans are capable of. And I think that’s something that connects us,” she says.
Watkins says she dreamed of going into space when she was young and always kept it in the back of her mind — never thinking it might become a reality.
“Don’t be afraid to dream big,” she says. “You’ll never know when your dreams will come true.”
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