Jeanette Epps was nine years old, living on Syracuse’s South Side, when the door to space first cracked open.
Her older brother was home at the family’s West Kennedy Street house, on a break from college. One day you can become an aerospace engineer, maybe even an astronaut, he told Epps and her twin, Janet, after seeing how good their grades were in science and math.
Jeanette Epps wasn’t sure what an aerospace engineer was, and an astronaut sounded close to impossible. But her eyes were forever open to the potential of a life bigger than Syracuse.
“That moment really stuck with me,” Epps said.
More than 40 years later, that little girl from West Kennedy Street is finally going to space.
Later this month, Epps will launch on a SpaceX-Crew 8 mission to the International Space Station. She will be a mission specialist, one of four astronauts on the Dragon spacecraft, and five astronauts who will be living on the station for six months. U.S. astronaut Tracy Dyson will be coming later on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Epps will be the second Black woman to live on the space station, and the sixth Black woman to fly into space.
Epps is Syracuse’s first astronaut. But at every opportunity she tells Syracuse kids they can be the next one.
“I am Syracuse, born and bred,” Epps said. “I love to tell the little girls, ‘Hey, look, if I’m doing this, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t do this’.”
Epps was selected to be an astronaut in 2009, but that did not mean space was a guarantee. She has trained the past 14 years in caves and underwater, places that most resemble space. She was selected for missions to space, then moved off the crew list more than once without explanation. She fought through that disappointment.
It was fuel for the missions ahead.
She did not think about giving up. Does she ever, she’s asked?
Her answer tells you everything you need to know about how she got to where she is.
“The thing is making sure you never let yourself get to that point,” Epps said. “For me, the way I do that is I practice a lot.”
Epps, 53, evangelizes hard work. If you have a dream, follow it. Put in the work. Listen to the people who believe in you, support you and help you.
Those people made all the difference for Epps.
‘We had a lot of people rooting for us’
Epps and her sister were successful because of Syracuse, not in spite of it.
“We had a lot of people rooting for us, people at Corcoran (High School), who really were proponents of us,” Epps said.
That continued when the sisters went to Le Moyne College through the college’s Urban League scholarship.
That support started at home with their mom, Luberta Epps, a keypunch operator for a local computer company. She and Epps’ father, Henry, had seven children; the twins were the babies. Henry and Luberta Epps moved to Syracuse from Mississippi during the Great Migration, found jobs in Syracuse and raised their children here.
When Jeanette Epps launches into space later this month, a photograph of her mother, Luberta, will be with her. She did not live to see her daughter go to space, but she knew she’d realized part of her dream: Luberta Epps died five days after finding out that Jeanette was named to the NASA Astronaut Corps in 2009.
“My mom was never a mom who said, ‘You can’t do that because you’re female, or (because) you’re Brown.’ She never once told my twin sister or me that what we were doing was not for us,” Jeanette Epps said.
Luberta Epps told the girls that the path they were carving for themselves in the sciences was exactly where they belonged. “The more I think about it … I realize how amazing it was because she was not a scientist or an engineer,” Epps said. “She really didn’t have any idea what Janet and I really, really wanted to do.”
She didn’t need to, Epps said. Luberta kept encouraging them and supporting them. She even went with the twins to Maryland where they both attended University of Maryland for graduate school. Both sisters have doctoral degrees. Janet Epps is a molecular biologist.
“My mother actually moved with us. When we had late nights and experiments that we had to conduct, my mother would be making the coffee for us, helping us with phone calls, making sure everything else was taken care of,” Epps said.
Then, it was a little embarrassing. Now it’s among the things that Epps knows made the difference.
Hillary Hunter and her family are also on that list. The twins were best friends with Hunter when they attended Corcoran High School. The three were in a college preparatory program at Corcoran that Hunter recalls as being more intense than college. Hunter and her husband run Hunter & Hilsberg, a Central New York company that makes boutique jams and preserves sold nationwide.
The teens all had extra-curricular activities and after-school jobs on top of the rigorous course work, Hunter said. Through it all, Jeanette maintained tremendous grades.
Epps remembers herself and her twin being shy then. She credits Hunter with helping her find her voice: She was vice president when Hunter was president of the student body.
Epps also credits Hunter with encouraging her to keep going when the college application process seemed daunting.
Hunter’s mother, Fran, too, became a part of the support system Epps still thinks about 40 years later. When Hillary Hunter told Epps about her interview for this story, she asked Hunter to include this: More than once, Fran Hunter drove to Epps’ home in Syracuse to pick her up and drive her out to Baldwinsville for her internship at the Anheuser-Busch plant.
Don’t have to come from Harvard
Carmen Giunta was in his first years of teaching chemistry at Le Moyne College when he had Jeanette and her sister, Janet, in his physical chemistry class.
Janet, who now works for the U.S. Patent Office, was a chemistry major and took Giunta’s class as a requirement. Jeanette, a physics major, took the chemistry class as an elective.
“They gave me the impression that our best students are as good as students anywhere,” said Giunta, who came to teach at Le Moyne after receiving his doctorate from Harvard University.
“You don’t have to come from Harvard or MIT to do extraordinary things,” he said.
Epps and her sister, Janet, went to the University of Maryland for graduate school. Epps entered the aerospace program at the Clark School of Engineering. She studied smart materials that were being used for helicopter blades at the time.
Epps had always wanted to be an astronaut, but she knew it was an incredibly limited pool. She decided not to focus so completely on that one goal that it made other successes feel like failures. She worked to become the best scientist she could be.
“I figured that I’d become a great scientist and then maybe, maybe, maybe in the future I’ll be able to apply, if I establish myself well enough,” Epps said in an interview for a NASA oral history project.
Epps’ first job out of school was an engineer at Ford Motor Co. She worked with the same types of materials she studied in graduate school, but applied that knowledge to cars instead.
She was only there for two years when the Central Intelligence Agency recruited her to do technical analysis of foreign weapons systems. In 2004, while still with the CIA, she volunteered to go to Iraq to help with the search for weapons of mass destruction.
In 2009, at the age of 39, Epps was accepted into the 20th class of the Astronaut Corps at NASA.
She was the second Black woman to participate in CAVES. This is what’s called an “analog” mission, where astronauts learn about space through experiences simulated on earth. She lived for five days in a cave deep in Slovenia.
It’s dark and cold, and beautiful. Much like she imagines space will be. There were rivers and mountains. The terrain was treacherous.
“It just looks otherworldly to me … like, what you would see if you were on the moon,” Epps said.
From finding a role model to becoming one
Throughout her career, Epps has looked up to Mae Jemsion, the first Black woman to go into space.
Epps remembers being in college when Jemison was on the cover of “Jet” magazine in her spacesuit. A woman who looked like her had made it to the place Epps had been dreaming of: That door to space that cracked when she was a child opened wider.
In 1992, Jemison was the first Black woman to go into space.
Later, when Epps became an astronaut, Jemison became a friend and mentor.
“It’s always difficult to be the first anything. And so I really admire her even to this day,” Epps said.
She and Jemison have talked about what it’s like to be part of a crew
“You know, what things can you expect? What should you do? You know, how do you build a team cohesiveness,” Epps said.
Epps knows her career has been built on the grace of people from Jemison to Hunter, and she strives to do the same for other kids.
She serves on Le Moyne College’s Board of Trustees, and has continued a strong relationship with the school and its students. She returns there and to Syracuse to speak with students as often as she can. She plans to attend a trustees meeting from space.
“She does not have an arrogant bone in her body,” said Sharon Kinsman Salmon, who serves on the Le Moyne’s Board of Trustees with Epps.
Epps’ dedication to kids and their dreams follows her wherever she goes.
“She’s just a remarkable human being,” said Le Moyne President Linda LeMura, who speaks with Epps frequently and is planning to attend her space launch this month.
When LeMura’s niece, Alexis Smith, was considering going to the U.S. Naval Academy with the end goal of being an astronaut, she met with Epps to talk about it.
“Meeting someone from your small hometown, it’s really inspiring to see what they’ve achieved,” Smith said. “I know the same people they know. That’s amazing to be inspired by a person like that.”
Smith, who graduated from Fayetteville-Manlius, is now studying electrical engineering at the academy. She said Epps made her see that being an astronaut was attainable, but that she should not be so focused on the end goal that it ruins the successes along the way. You get there through hard work at every step, Epps told her. Build skills, build character, Epps told her.
Grant Farrokh had been considering a career at NASA, but it felt out of reach when he was a senior at Le Moyne College.
He met Epps when she came to speak with students about her experiences working at NASA. Farrokh was interested in a career at NASA, but he didn’t think he’d be able to get his foot in the door. After hearing about Epps’ path, and how her relentless work paid off, Farrokh said he focused on getting internships and a master’s degree in aerospace.
“But Dr. Epps inspired me,” Farrokh said. “I remember her saying you can learn anything if you put the time into it.”
Farrokh now works at the Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center. He’ll likely be there during her launch.
“I don’t think I would have had this career trajectory if not for Dr. Epps,” Farrokh said.
Epps has these conversations wherever she goes, and they change people’s lives.
She remembers a young woman coming up to her after she spoke at a conference in New Orleans.
The woman told her she really wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but she just wasn’t sure she could do it.
They talked for a while, Epps recalls. Epps told her it wasn’t going to be easy, but she could do it. The reasons not to were simply excuses.
“‘Everything is hard work until you learn it’,” Epps recalls telling her. Later, she worried she was too harsh.
Five years later, while Epps was on a visit to Collins Aerospace Engineering in Iowa, the same young woman came up to her. You won’t remember me, the woman told her. She had become an aerospace engineer because of that conversation.
“I was stunned,” Epps said.
A dream paused
This space mission will be Epps’ first, but it is not the first time she’s been announced as part of a mission. In 2018, Epps was scheduled to be part of a Russian Soyouz mission to the International Space Station. She trained. She was ready. She was excited.
Then, a few months before the launch, she was pulled. NASA gave no specific reason. Usually, when this happens, it is for an illness or other medical reason.
If Epps had been on that flight, she would have made history as the first Black woman on the Space Station. In 2019, Jessica Watkins took that distinction.
At the time, Epps’ brother, Henry, and others speculated that the decision was based on race.
Epps, herself, has not talked publicly about the reason, except to say it was not health or family related. NASA has never given a specific reason.
She and her friends said the move was one of the hardest things she’s had to deal with in her life.
“That was a big setback,” Epps said. “I think the big thing was, wrapping my head around what happened and why it happened. And getting through that.”
Hunter, who is still close with Epps and her sister, recalled her friend’s struggle.
“I remember great disappointment,” Hunter said. “She worked very hard and ‘checked all the boxes,’ so to speak … I was saddened by what happened to her, but I knew deep down, greater things were in store for Jeanette.”
Epps kept moving forward, working hard. She did the thing she always told others to do.
“Consistency over time is what won the day, doing the work and doing it consistently over time, and you chop away at this big mountain that you think is ahead of you … And you can get just about anywhere you want,” Epps said. “You’re not limited to that little world that you live in now. But the entire world is an option … You know the sky is not just the limit, the moon is the limit. And then hopefully after that Mars.”
When she blasts off faster than a fighter jet, she’ll be speeding into the possibility she’s dreamed of her entire life. But she’ll also be thinking about the girls on the ground in Syracuse, hoping they see that the door is open for them now.
Space can be theirs, too.
Marnie Eisenstadt writes about people and public affairs in Central New York. Contact her anytime email | Twitter| Facebook | 315-470-2246.