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Jessica Watkins to be the 1st Black woman to serve at the International Space Station

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

NASA and SpaceX are set to send the next round of astronauts to the International Space Station tomorrow from the Kennedy Space Center. One member of the mission is NASA's astronaut, Jessica Watkins, who will become the first Black woman on a long-duration space mission. WMFE's Brendan Byrne reports she's only the fifth Black woman to travel to space, a fact NASA wants to change.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: Jessica Watkins is humble about her soon-to-be-record-breaking flight. The 33-year-old geologist from Colorado joined the astronaut corps in 2017. She's part of NASA's Crew-4 mission, a six-month journey to the space station.

JESSICA WATKINS: I think it really is just a tribute to the legacy of the Black women astronauts that have come before me, as well as to the exciting future ahead.

BYRNE: That legacy took a long time to develop. Early on, astronauts were far from diverse, says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

BILL NELSON: In the old days, when we first started flying in space, they were all military test pilots. They were usually white males of only a certain height.

BYRNE: The astronauts that flew in the 1960s during NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions that landed on the moon were all white men. When the space shuttle program was developed in the 1970s, women and people of color were encouraged to apply to the astronaut corps, but it would take decades to see the first Black woman launch to space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Two, one - solid rocket ignition and lift off; lift off of Endeavour on America's 50th space shuttle flight.

BYRNE: NASA's Mae Jemison launched on the shuttle Endeavour in 1992. After that, just two more Black women would fly on shuttle missions - Stephanie Wilson and Joan Higginbotham.

SIAN PROCTOR: It is frustrating.

BYRNE: Sian Proctor became the fourth Black woman to fly to space and the first to pilot a spacecraft on a commercial mission with SpaceX. She spent three days in orbit last year, which was more than a decade after the last Black woman astronaut flew to space.

PROCTOR: When you don't have people of color, women of color in particular up there doing science, paving the way, showing that it is possible, then you're not inspiring that section of the population to dream that as a career for themselves.

BYRNE: NASA understands the importance of representation. Its astronaut corps is now the most diverse it has ever been, but there's still work to be done. For its next lunar program, what it calls Artemis, NASA promises to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon this decade. Again, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

NELSON: We want to see that all people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to participate in the space program.

BYRNE: For Proctor, it's a large responsibility to be that role model and inspire those who look like her to enter a field in which so few Black women have been before.

PROCTOR: I kept thinking how, you know, I really want to be successful so that other women of color will follow behind me.

BYRNE: Ahead of her flight, that responsibility is not lost on Jessica Watkins, either.

WATKINS: For me, growing up, it was important to me to have role models in roles that I aspire to be in, contributing in ways I aspired to contribute. So to the extent that I'm able to do that, I'm honored and grateful for the opportunity to return the favor.

BYRNE: And it might not be her only chance to return that favor. NASA selected Watkins to train for those next lunar missions so she can continue her trailblazing ways and leave footprints on the moon for others to follow.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.