In her blue NASA overalls at Berlin’s Tech Open Air Conference, with a calm and unfussy demeanor, Jeanette Epps looked like she was born to be an astronaut.

Epps has dreamed of space travel since she was about 9, when her older brother planted the idea in her head. Epps and her twin sister had showed him their report cards, and he was impressed by their high marks. Their brother told them that they were capable of becoming aerospace engineers or even astronauts one day.

It was around 1978, and NASA had just selected its first group of women, including Sally Ride, who became the first American woman to go into space.

The idea took root. After graduating with a PhD in aerospace engineering, she worked as a research engineer for Ford Motor Company before moving to the CIA, where she gained operational experience in a foreign territory on a mission to Iraq. In 2009, she was accepted to NASA’s astronaut corps.

But Epps, 47, insists that what looks like a strategic plan now was by no means deliberate. Instead of purposefully taking jobs that would lead her to the astronaut corps, she “chose to do things that I thought were going to be challenging and interesting,” Epps tells me.

This step-by-step approach characterizes everything Epps does. An end goal can exist, but it shouldn’t always be your main focus. But, in 2017, Epps’s dream of one day going into space seemed like it would become a reality. NASA selected her as a flight engineer for Expedition 56 and 57. Epps was slated to become the first African American to live on board the International Space Station.

She underwent physically and mentally challenging astronaut training in Houston, Germany, Japan and Russia, where the winter survival, water survival and centrifuge training takes place. For Epps, Russia was particularly difficult because she didn’t know what to expect; both the language and the training were unknown. She was sitting in class, trying to read and understand documentation written in Russian. Then, she thought: “How cool is this?” She couldn’t believe she had made it to Star City, the town where Russia’s legendary cosmonaut camp is located.

“At that moment, I decided to just go with the flow, and exam after exam, things got better,” Epps says. “I realized, going through all this training, [that] I was worried about nothing. It’s like going through school. You have exams, you study for them, you try to do your best on them, and you’re working toward an end goal — it could be a degree or whatever, in this case it was a launch — and it was all ultimately doable.”

After completing her training, Epps was ready to go into space.

But when the Russian Soyuz launched this year on June 6, Epps was not on board. In a controversial move, NASA pulled Epps from the mission without providing an explanation. Astronauts have been pulled from flight at the last minute before, but most of these cases have been due to medical issues. Ken Mattingly, for example, was removed from the Apollo 13 crew three days before launch because of exposure to German measles. At the time, Epps pointed out that she didn’t have a medical condition or family issues that would keep her Earthbound.

Her brother, Henry Epps, accused NASA of being racist and misogynistic. (NASA ended up replacing Epps with Serena Auñón-Chancellor, an astronaut who became the first Hispanic woman to live on the ISS.) Epps returned to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she waited for her name to be called again.

Last week, NASA announced the names of nine U.S. astronauts who would be flying to space using commercial spacecraft for the first time. Epps wasn’t on the list. As time goes on, it’s become increasingly likely that she will never get to go to space.

This seems like a cruel twist of fate for someone who has chipped away at her dream, proving herself along the way.

Still, Epps remains “very proud” of the work she’s done. If she doesn’t make it to space, it won’t define her career, she says. It was NASA’s decision. She didn’t do anything wrong.

“Women have a tendency to take on blame, and you have to recognize what happened, your role in it, and take responsibility if there is some,” Epps says.

“But you also have to recognize when you actually did nothing wrong and when something has been done to you.”

When asked about whether she thinks the reasons behind NASA’s decision were racist, Epps has thus far refused to comment, saying only, like the good scientist she is: “I can’t specifically say or speculate what people are thinking ... unless I have a little more information.”

It’s a similar response to the one she gave me when I asked if she thought aliens existed: “Statistically, it’s very likely. So I won’t say definitively ‘yes,’ but there’s a definite possibility.”

Everything about Epps is considered and measured, including the way in which she is reacting to her current situation.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was a devastating thing to happen, but you have to move beyond that because the truth is that your career is not over,” she says. “And not only is it not over, but you can have an even stronger voice in the face of some kind of adversity.”

When Epps was pegged as the first African American crew member to live aboard the ISS in its almost 20-year history of continuous human occupation, she was reluctant to take on such a heavy mantle. The way she saw it, she was just doing her job to the best of her ability like everyone else, and besides, she recognized that many other women and African Americans, such as Mae Jemison, had paved the way before her.

“I never wanted to be the first anything,” she tells me. But when Epps started talking to girls and young women, she realized how important her role was.

“I saw just how much they wanted this — it invigorated and inspired them,” Epps says.

So although it’s back to business as usual in Houston for Epps, who is still performing her regular astronaut duties: Flying the T-38 aircraft, working in mission control and helping to develop the Orion — the spacecraft that is being designed to take a crew to deep space, including to the moon and Mars. Epps is also embracing her role as a powerful contributor to the lives of young women.

“How do you plant seeds in the brain and try to get them on a path — some path that will get them to taking over the world?” she asks, laughing.

Epps’s June talk in Berlin, entitled “Perseverance Despite the Odds,” was the first time in which she spoke candidly about being removed from the flight. She plans to make more public appearances and continue to speak out about her career and experience.

“If I [choose] this new platform, it can take my career in a different path, and it can be very exciting when you think of it like that,” Epps says. “I think that we all end up where we’re supposed to be.” Epps ponders what her purpose will be: “Is it for me to have a stronger voice, and to contribute to the lives of people who come after me?”

Epps has faith and believes in destiny, which may account for the positive way in which she embraces change. It may also be a result of what she identified was one of the most important qualities for an astronaut to have: flexibility — not only to work with different people from different backgrounds, but to adapt to any situation.

She cites her mother who “was the master of surviving any situation” as one of her biggest influences. Her mother, who divorced after having seven children, raised them more or less single-handedly with only a high school education. She encouraged her children to go to school for as long as possible, read as much as possible and become as educated as they could.

“She never taught us that you couldn’t do something because you were a little brown girl,” Epps says.

“She never gave us that inkling. So when people would say, ‘You can’t just do that,’ we would say, ‘Why not?’ Growing up with that mentality, you just kind of push your way through life.”

By guiding the next generation, Epps is following in her mother’s footsteps: “I want young women to see what’s going on and know the details of how I got from point A to point B. Because I didn’t just wake up doing this stuff.”

Many astronauts experience the “overview effect” upon going to space — the awareness that all humans are connected and have a responsibility toward each other. Without ever having gone to space, Epps is already conscious of this.

“My goal has always been, how do you contribute?” she says. “How do you help someone else? How do you make the lives of others easier? And promote them to get to that point? Say if I don’t get there, how do I help get someone else there? And how do I help them to overcome the obstacles that they may encounter along the way?”

She is adding herself to a long line of women, from her mother to Sally Ride to Mae Jemison, a chain of progress, leading from one woman to the next. Change comes in small steps. By speaking out about her experiences and encouraging others to succeed, Epps is contributing to providing a wider, more inclusive perspective for us all.

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