NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Houston, Texas – 16 February 2012
Today is February 16th, 2012. This interview with Dr. Jeanette Epps
is being conducted in Houston, Texas, for the NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project. The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, assisted
by Sandra Johnson. Thanks again for taking time out of your schedule
today to meet with us.
Certainly appreciate it.
I thought we’d start today by having you give us a broad overview
of your education and work experience before coming to work here at
I went to undergraduate in Syracuse [New York] at Le Moyne College
and while there I earned a bachelor’s degree in physics. I only
spent four years there, but I originally planned to spend five years.
I was going to do a three-two program where you spend three years
at Le Moyne and then you go off to an engineering school for two years,
but I decided to finish the four years off in physics and then go
on to graduate school. I’d rather have spent that fifth year
in a graduate program doing aerospace than continuing physics.
After four years of undergrad I ended up at University of Maryland
in College Park, and I entered the aerospace program there. Originally
I wanted to go into the space program there, but there were a lot
of people in the space program at the time. So I ended up talking
with the department chair at the time, who happened to be Dr. Inderjit
Chopra. He was the head of the rotorcraft group there as well, and
he was doing a lot of work with smart materials for helicopters. He
convinced me that it was a good idea to stay there in the rotorcraft
group and do research with smart materials.
So instead of going into the space group I ended up in the rotorcraft
group. That was pretty interesting. I ended up spending seven and
a half years there for a master’s and a PhD. It was pretty interesting.
I did a lot of work. For my master’s I actually worked on composite
blades. I did a thesis on composite swept-tip rotor blades, did a
lot of work on that, wrote a paper, and went to conference, and then
finished that. Then for graduate school I had multiple topics. I finally
ended up doing a lot of work with these materials called shape-memory
alloys and how to apply those to reduce vibrations in the hub of a
helicopter. So it was pretty interesting work while there.
After graduate school, just to broaden my horizons as a scientist,
I wanted to get away from my adviser and to be independent and become
a real scientist. Graduate school is one of the best places to be,
but it is a protected environment—to me it was. I was offered
a job at Ford Motor Company in the scientific research lab there to
continue work with smart materials. It was a way to continue working
with the same materials but applying it to a different mechanical
object I should say. Rather than a helicopter, it was a car now. So
I did that for two and a half years. While working there, I was recruited
to go work at the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], and I worked
at the CIA for seven and a half years. I worked in the directorate
of intelligence while there.
I was an analyst for about three and a half years or so. While there
I did technical analysis for foreign weapon systems. That was very
interesting. You do a little bit of reverse-engineering to try to
build a picture of what happened, of how things may work based on
the data that you have so you’re a reverse engineer. Then beyond
that I moved over to the Directorate of Science and Technology. While
there I was a project engineer and also a technical operations officer,
where you develop operations to collect different signatures or to
collect different pieces of intelligence that the US government has
an interest in.
At the agency that was where I really thought that I could become
a scientist and a little bit more operational, if that makes sense.
I was able to volunteer to go to Iraq for four months. So I spent
four months in Iraq during November 2003 through February 2004. I
spent time there helping to try to figure out what happened to the
WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and worked with the David Kay group.
After that I got to travel quite a bit all over the world to different
places for proliferation issues and export control issues.
Once I went over to the Directorate of Science and Technology it was
still a lot of the same. I only spent about a little over a year doing
that. That was interesting, but after being a scientist and working
in a lab and being able to work with your hands and do a lot of the
work, it was interesting being the project engineer who just managed
other scientists to do it. I was a little jealous. I couldn’t
jump in and do anything. Although I liked the projects, some very
good black projects that we worked on, very good work, but I wanted
to get more into the operational side and collect the information
that we need. Almost as a research scientist wants to get the data
to prove something or even disprove something. So being on the technical
operations side you can get involved in that sense. It was a very
interesting career that I had that eventually culminated into getting
selected for the astronaut program.
You had a very unique experience before you came to NASA.
Epps: I did.
A lot of people are saying, “Well, how did you end up applying
to the astronaut program?” One of the funniest things is that
I was so—well, it’s not funny in a ha-ha way—and
this is what I always tell people, is that I think every kid wants
to be an astronaut. My older brother was in college at the time. My
twin sister and I, we were doing really well in school. We had to
be about nine, he’s in college, he comes home, and he’s
looking at our grades from the last couple years. He’s like,
“Well, you can go to school. You can go into aerospace engineering;
you may even become an astronaut.” I thought, “Okay, I
can become a scientist, I can become an aerospace engineer. Astronaut?
Oh, that would be so cool. But nah, I don’t know if I’d
ever get selected for that.” So it’s one of those things.
As I was growing up my brothers and sisters said, “Well, you
always said you wanted to work for NASA, didn’t you?”
Even now they say that to me and I’m like, “Well, that
was my dream.” Even though I never thought it was something
that I could do, you build your life to do those things. Even though,
you know, I probably will never be one of those people who can apply,
and should apply and just go for it. So I built my life to be, “Okay,
if I can’t be an astronaut I will be a great scientist,”
because I wasn’t that operational in that sense. 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.
As a child I thought that becoming an astronaut was the coolest thing
but one of the most impossible.
Because I was nine years old [and] my parents weren’t engineers
or anything like that, I said, “Well, I got a lot of work.”
My sister and I, we loved science, anything to do with science. She
ended up going the chemistry biology route, and I ended up going the
engineering route. So growing up we loved all of this stuff. We loved
space, anything to do with space. We loved just about anything that
was related to science.
Did you follow the Shuttle program when you were a kid?
the funny thing is we followed NASA, and we did follow the Shuttle
program. Like for example when Mae [C.] Jemison was selected that
was a huge deal. Of course we followed that. I remember the picture
of her on the cover of Jet magazine, and that was legendary, and that
was one of the landmark things in my mind. Gosh. I was still in high
school, looking at that. I was just wowified, just absolutely wow.
But we had the Challenger [STS-51L] happen.
For some reason the Challenger issue, that resonated more with me.
I don’t know why. I remember we had a break from school, and
we were home and watching the Shuttle launch. Minutes later you see
this whole event unfold, and it’s so unreal. That really stuck
with me, but it never deterred me from wanting to be part of that.
Not once. It just made me realize that going to space is cool, but
you got a lot of preparation that you need to do in order to get there.
I think that made me want to work a little bit more, work a little
harder, just to make sure. If you ever get there, you’re going
to make sure everything’s correct, and right, and that you’ve
looked at all the details.
Mae Jemison—I can’t think of another woman growing up,
other than my mother—who stood out in my mind as much, because
it was amazing that she was selected and she was able to do this at
the time. It was unheard of. I think her selection gave a lot of girls
like me just the thought, it could come true. Holy cow, it happened
for her, so maybe it can happen for me. With the Challenger issue
you got to work hard, and you never know what will happen. Role models
are definitely very important. I do know that just seeing that picture
of Mae Jemison on the cover of Jet magazine made me think, “Wow,
I can’t believe she made it; that’s just amazing, if she
can do this then maybe I can do this as well.” I was definitely
older; I think I was in high school when I saw that, my senior year
in high school or something like that.
It was memorable just seeing that picture. It was those two events
that stand out in my mind, that Jet magazine and then the Challenger
issue, that framed the way I thought about things after that.
Tell me how you prepared to become a scientist through elementary
school and high school.
Epps: My twin
sister and I, we were very fortunate in that we had people who—I
don’t know what they saw in us or what was going on—but
they propelled us in that direction. Janet and I, we did a lot of
stuff in math and science growing up. Especially in middle school
and different things, we had people who moved us and geared us in
that direction. It’s interesting because people always told
us that’s what we would be. I think words are very important
for kids. I don’t remember ever thinking I would do anything
else. Not one time, because people always said, “Well, you’re
going to become some kind of scientist or something like that because
you’re so good at math and you do this and you do that.”
Janet and I, we were very blessed in that we had people who encouraged
us, who helped us, and propelled us in that direction. We were the
youngest of seven. So going to college, my mom was like, “Well,
you’re going to have to take out a lot of loans maybe. Maybe
try to go for scholarships.”
While in high school we really had a lot of people come out of the
woodwork to help us get scholarships. My mom wanted us to stay local
and go to Le Moyne, not Syracuse [University]. She wanted us to go
to Le Moyne College for some reason. Janet and I went there and interviewed,
and lo and behold we both received the Le Moyne College Urban League
scholarship. So we didn’t pay to go to undergrad.
We had great role models, and just great people in our lives who directed
us in that direction. Corcoran High School was a great high school
to go to. A lot of the instructors there and the teachers there, the
principal—Thomas Kenah at the time—they really helped
us in that sense. A friend, Hillary Hunter, she was the president
of our senior class, and I was her vice president. My mom or dad,
neither of them went to college. She said, “Well, you have to
do these things; you can do this.” We had a lot of people who
helped us get through and reach our goals. So it definitely wasn’t
There were people at Le Moyne. I’ll never forget Professor [James
F.] Welter—he’s passed away—and Evelyn Monsay, two
of the instructors there. They were really great in just understanding.
I worked undergrad, and we commuted in half the time. We were definitely
helped in a good way. As long as we were producing and doing our work
as we were supposed to, there were always people there to help. Even
beyond that once I got into graduate school, Dr. Chopra, he was a
huge role model. Even to this day I now think of him as a father.
He’s one of those fathers looking at you, making sure you do
well. You don’t want to disappoint him.
In graduate school Dr. Chopra really looked out [for me]. As long
as you were doing your work and you were doing the things you needed
to do, spending the time in the work and getting it done, he was there
to help and make sure you didn’t have to worry about getting
a fellowship for the next year. We went to conferences. We wrote papers
to establish ourselves. So Dr. Chopra was really really critical and
in the loop on everything. Janet and I both had great advisers that
did that for us. She was in the molecular cell biology group, and
Dr. [Soichi] Tanda, her adviser, did the same thing for her and moved
her through as well. As long as we were doing the work and producing
the things that we were supposed to, we never had any problems. We
were truly blessed. We got through, and just a lot of people there
who encouraged us and helped us along the way.
Yes, it’s amazing how much encouragement helps.
Epps: It really
does. One thing I always tell people, the words you use are the things
that kids remember. Looking back now, I don’t remember ever
thinking that I would do anything other than become a scientist or
work for NASA, become a scientist-engineer, do something like that.
Growing up I always said to Janet and my mom, “Well, I want
to work for NASA at some point.” Janet constantly reminds me
of that to this day. “You always said that; you always said
that.” I never thought I would do anything [else]. People confirmed
that. They kept saying that. I didn’t have anyone who said,
“You are not.” It’s funny. When I did run into one
or two people who would say that I’m like, “Well, that’s
contrary to what I had always been told, so you can’t be right.”
So I do make sure that I tell [people]—especially when I see
parents telling their kids, “Oh, you’re a bad boy, or
you’re this, or you’re that,” words are very important.
You’re programming your child to be that thing that you’re
telling them. So words are very important.
It is interesting, because Janet and I, I remember being as young
as six, my older sister would tell us these things. She would come
home with her homework and she would have us sit with her, because
she had to watch us. She had to babysit, and she would teach us how
to do her homework. She was surprised that we could do it, but she’s
teaching us how to do this. So we were learning. She even said, “Who
knows what you’ll do as you get older?” They always said,
“Well, you’re intelligent enough to do this. You’re
smart enough to do this. You can do it. You can do it. You can do
it. You’re this. You’re that.”
It is very important to have that encouragement and use the right
words. I think words are very important.
Now I understand according to your biosheet that you were a NASA fellow
when you were in graduate school for a number of years.
Epps: I was.
It’s funny, because my mother said, “Well, you always
said you were going to work for NASA.” I said, “Yes, but
I’m working at Ford.” She said, “Well, you got the
NASA fellowship.” I said, “Yes, that’s true.”
So I thought I was resigned. Okay, I had the NASA fellowship. Dr.
Chopra was very critical in getting that. I had a project that I was
working on and he thought that one of the research scientists out
at Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California] would be interested
and would sponsor me for the fellowship. His name was Khanh Nguyen.
He was out at NASA Ames for a long time. I think he subsequently left,
but it was because of him and working with Dr. Chopra. They supported
me for three years on that fellowship. It was very nice because they
sponsored travel out to NASA Ames, and I could present my project
and talk to Khanh and get advice. It was a very good three years.
I think it was at the tail end of the PhD phase of me being at University
Did you get a chance to work at Ames as a fellow?
The NASA fellowship is a GSRP. Graduate Student Research Program I
think is what it was called. You would get a NASA fellowship through
the program. So I never got a chance to work out at NASA Ames. I worked
with one of the research scientists, but never out there. Instead
of going to a NASA Center after graduate school I ended up going out
to Ford. Dr. Chopra, I don’t know if he was happy about that,
but it was a good thing to do, [in] hindsight.
Well, I’m sure he’s pretty proud of you now.
It’s a good way to pay back a great adviser, is to do well.
Tell me how you found out that NASA was selecting a new group of astronauts
Epps: I had
always followed the program because I knew people were applying, and
I knew so many people were interested, but I would never utter the
words. To me it was like if you said, “I’m going to apply
and I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,”
and then you don’t get selected, it’s like ah. This time
Leland [D.] Melvin actually called me. He said, “NASA is looking
for new astronauts.” I had always said to him, “I don’t
know if I can do that. I think maybe it’s not for me. I need
to work on this, and I need to do this.”
I had done a lot of traveling for the agency. I never thought I was
operational enough. I don’t know if that makes any sense. I
said, “Well, I don’t know; I don’t know.”
Then I thought about it. I was 38 at the time. I said, “Well,
if I don’t apply now I’ll never be able to apply again.”
That was the wakeup call. I said, “Well, if I don’t do
it now I’ll never do it. I just need to at least apply once
and see what happens. They probably won’t select me, but at
least I will say I did it; I applied. Oh well.” The thought
of it being the last chance that I could ever do this was huge in
my mind. So I said, “Okay, I have to do it.” I always
told Leland, “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t
know if they would [select me].”
Not being selected, it’s disappointing. I’ve seen people
who put their name in and they don’t get selected. It’s
very disappointing. I look at them. “Wow, if that person didn’t
get in, and I go ahead and apply, I’m not sure if they would
even consider me for an interview.” I knew people who got an
interview. They went through. They had great resumes. They had done
great things, and they weren’t selected. It is very disappointing.
So I said, “Well, it’s my last chance. Who know what’ll
Tell me about that whole process as it unfolded. I understand you
actually participated in two interviews, which is unusual.
It’s nerve-racking too. So you get the first call and you’re
on cloud nine. Just to be called for an interview is amazing. You
go through the first process where you do a basic workout with some
of the astronauts like Peggy [A.] Whitson and Suni [Sunita L.] Williams.
to see how well your physical fitness is. So you’re, “Okay,
that’s interesting.” Then beyond that you do a basic interview,
a roundtable. You’re sitting in one spot, and then it’s
a U-shaped table. All the rest are astronauts and other people who
are interviewing you. It’s rapid-fire questions, so you can’t
plan what you’re going to say. There’s no way to plan
what you’re going to say. It’s rapid-fire. You’re
just answering. I don’t know if they do that so that you can’t
have a canned speech that you’re going to give them. It was
nerve-racking, but after I came out of there I said, “Oh.”
You really don’t remember what you said.
It’s a good thing you don’t mull it over anymore.
So in fact I had the interview right after I worked out with Peggy
Whitson and those guys. We’d just come from the locker rooms,
and I had to get in there. It was good because my energy is already
up, adrenaline is going, and just sit down and just do it. It was
nerve-racking. You’ve got so many people watching you, so many
senior astronauts, and people that you’ve only seen their names.
You’re like “Wow, this is pretty intense.” Very
cool, but very intense as well. Duane [L.] Ross is always sitting
to your left, and he’s a calming factor. So that first interview
was quite interesting. They did a little bit of anthropometrics to
measure your body to see. I think at the time I wasn’t sure
if that was to see how you fit into the Soyuz, your body shape and
different things, to see how you would fit in there.
Then the waiting period between interviews was the next step. So you
do that interview and then out of 120 people who were interviewed
the first time they whittled it down to 40. That waiting period between
interviews was also nerve-racking. It was quite nerve-racking because
you don’t realize how much you really want this until you come
down. You’re in the middle of it, and you meet some of the people,
and you talk to them. I remember talking to John [L.] Phillips. He’s
telling me about Kazakhstan. I’m like “Wow!” It’s
like being in a daze and walking through a dream that you’ve
had. So get back home, and you’re thinking, “Wow, I really
want this.” I’m just praying that they call me back. One
of the nicest feelings is when they call you back and you’re
like, “Wow, I’m one of the 40.” That is a very nice
feeling, I have to say. The second round of interviews is mainly the
medical aspect, which is a very thorough physical exam.
Even though it’s a stressful time in the sense that you’re
excited and nervous and you go through the medical part, everything
usually works out. I ended up having gallstones. I was also told that
having gallstones is a disqualifier but not having a gallbladder is
not. So if I didn’t have a gallbladder, it was, “No, you’re
not disqualified,” but having gallstones is. In other words
get rid of the gallbladder. I didn’t realize that I had gallstones,
but I had always had this slight pain in that area. I actually decided
to go ahead and have my gallbladder removed after that to get rid
of the stones and all that. So I had my gallbladder removed, which
worked out to my advantage in fact. During the process I found out
I had gallstones. Subsequently about a month and a half later I had
it removed. The second interview process we did have to go through
another roundtable interview where you’re the only person. So
that was another interesting aspect.
Being here again in Houston just confirmed, “Oh wow, I didn’t
understand how much I really wanted this.” You get back, and
it’s a waiting process. You’re on pins and needles. Everyone’s
sending e-mails. I’m trying to focus on work and go off and
do other things and not think about it. It was a tough process waiting,
very tough process.
Tell me about that phone call that you finally received. Who ended
up calling you?
Epps: It was
Peggy Whitson. I’m not ashamed to say that when she said, “We
think you would be a great addition,” tears just started coming
down my eye. I’m totally not ashamed about that. It was June
23rd at 11:00. I can’t remember the [exact] time. I think it
was either the 22nd or the 23rd. But I remember it was June 20 something.
It was early afternoon. I remember sitting in my car. I had just come
out from work and had to call. In fact my mother was in the hospital
at the time. I had to call her. So I came out and picked up my phone
and saw that. I’d just got in the car and the phone rang. Picked
it up, and lo and behold it was Peggy. So it was quite exhilarating.
Having everything come together all at once is an overwhelming feeling,
emotional, and it’s life-changing because you know that at that
moment your whole life is going to change. You’ve got to be
on your A game. This is a serious task. It’s a worthy task.
So it was amazing.
What did your family think when you told them?
what’s funny is that my mom, she subsequently passed away, but
when I told her she was the one who always said she doesn’t
like me doing all these dangerous things, she doesn’t think
I should do this, she doesn’t think I should do that. But when
she heard this she said, “Wow, that’s the best thing that’s
ever happened to you!” So I said, “Wow!” Everyone
was just elated. I got so many calls. I didn’t know what to
do with it. It was just like wow. I didn’t know what to say.
I didn’t know what to do either. It is life-changing. It is
one of the best things that could happen to you, because it is just
huge amounts of, I think, responsibility. You’re in the public
eye. You got to take on this huge task to perform. It’s amazing,
because I guess I do think about it as you’re still working
for the government, and you are privileged to be able to do this and
go to space and do the science and do those things. It’s a huge
privilege and responsibility.
I think at the time I said, “I’m ready for it.”
You get in the middle of it, and you’re like “Wow, you
really have to be responsible.” It is a privilege; it’s
a true privilege. I think I realize that more and more each day, because
I love doing a lot of the things that we do especially going out to
the NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Lab]. It’s a really tough task to
get into the suit, perform for six hours. But how many people get
to do that? How many people would love to do that, on top of it? It’s
nice to have friends that come out. I had a friend who came out last
time I got in the pool. She said, “Man, I just wanted to grab
some scuba gear and get in there with you.” It’s like
I know. It is very cool. It’s a privilege to be able to do it.
It’s overwhelming, but it’s good, very good.
Tell me about coming into the agency in 2009. The Shuttle is closing
out and Constellation has been canceled. What was your reception by
the rest of the astronaut corps?
interesting, because when we came in, we were off and running. They
put us into classes. So I thought the reception from the office was
pretty nice. After that we immediately were jetted off to—we
first went to Brunswick, Maine, to survival training. After that a
handful of us went off to Pensacola [Florida] for six weeks. Then
we were traveling in between to visit sites. We were doing a lot of
geology. Then we had our own classes. So it was fast and furious,
the first two years, to get all the training in. It was very fast
Because the Shuttle was ending I think a lot of minds were directed
towards that. It’s funny because when the Shuttle program ended,
it hits you like a rock. You’re like “Wow, they actually
did stop flying the Shuttle.” It was sad to see the Shuttle
era end, but it is also hopeful because there’s a lot of cool
things on the horizon. The interesting part is that a lot of people
actually thought NASA shut down after that. I had a lot of people
send me e-mails to ask about, “What are you going to do now?”
I said, “Well, I was never meant to fly in the Shuttle. I actually
get to do something that is—I would love to fly in the Shuttle—as
cool, which is to fly in the Soyuz.” If there’s a future
vehicle, who knows what will happen? Maybe I’ll get to fly in
one of the future vehicles. But for now it’s like the Mir Shuttle
program. When the Mir was there, we only had the Russians. So to me
it’s a huge opportunity.
We came in, and our mandate was that we had to know Russian. So we
had to start taking Russian. We had to pass the oral proficiency interview
exam, which is totally separate from NASA. So we had to be validated
that we can speak at, it wasn’t a very high level, but we had
to learn Russian to that level before we could graduate. I think that’s
so cool that we have to learn Russian. So after that, we have to learn
Russian, we have to learn a lot about the Soyuz. We’re learning
a lot about the Russian system, and the US working together also.
I guess I have this different mindset. It’s not necessarily
different. But coming from the agency, which is an international agency,
and working with other countries in this capacity to me is a much
better capacity that I would want to work with another country. The
CIA has a whole different aspect of how they work with other countries.
I like the idea of working cooperatively and doing things like that.
So the idea of working well with another country, to go to their country
and do different things, that appealed to me a lot in the sense that
we’re working well together. So learning Russian I think is
one of the coolest things we get to do. And actually having time spliced
out to do that is part of your job. You can’t beat that.
We learned Russian. We learned about the Soyuz. We have to be able
to do an EVA [extravehicular activity]. So that was the task. I said,
“Okay, if I’m going to focus, my main focus is going to
be on the EVA, and how to do that.” Partly because I wouldn’t
want to be on Station, something goes wrong, and not be able to go
out of the hatch. I want to be prepared for just about anything that
can go wrong, and even things that we don’t know about. Being
able to do an EVA and do it well. It may not be perfect, but do it
well, that’s very important to me. If anything goes wrong you
got to be there. It may even be something where you save the Station.
Who knows? If you’re on Station, you have to be the one to go
out there. So recognizing the dangers and the joys of doing that I
think should be in the forefront of people’s mind. I think for
people coming on subsequent to us, I think having them understand
that look, you have to be able to do an EVA. Something goes wrong,
you have to be trained well enough to go out the hatch. Doesn’t
have to be a perfect EVA. but you have to know what you’re getting
into and understand what you’re doing. Everybody in the office
understands that. I think before coming on board I always thought
one of the coolest things was the spacewalk and how you do that. I
think being in the pool and in the suit gave me a whole different
perspective. That’s one of my favorite things to do, for sure.
I think because it’s such a challenge to do. But it’s
doable. That’s the nice part. It’s doable.
You fit in the suit. That’s been one of the—I guess arguments
about whether or not women fit in the suit, and they can’t do
I’m 5’ 8”. I’m not extremely thin. I’m
a size eight. So I’m a 5’ 8” size eight kind of
person. So I really actually don’t fit in the suit. I have a
lot of padding in certain cases. A lot of it has to do with being
neutrally buoyant. If you’re neutrally buoyant, being able to
work in the suit can be streamlined. If you have air pockets in there,
you’re not so neutrally buoyant. So you have that air pocket
making you floaty. You may have other things that may [affect you],
like if you have a leak in the suit it may make you heavy. Then translating
in the pool becomes difficult. But those are a lot of pool issues.
One thing I did notice is that people try to say that it’s a
male-female thing. I’m not so sure about that, because I’m
not the thinnest person. I know that my Japanese colleagues, the three
gentlemen that came in with me, one of the guys, he’s very thin,
he’s very narrow. I’ve got at least hips, and I don’t
fit in the suit. I know he doesn’t either, but he does really
well in the suit. I’m like, “Well, why am I having so
many difficulties?” I’ve learned how the suit works a
Sometimes I think for some women it may be arm reach that may be an
issue, because one thing you do in the suit is you have to reach for
certain things and you may or may not be able to reach into certain
places because of the arm length. There may be little things that
you have to tweak and do. There were men who I’m taller than
who were able to do the EVAs, and they did really well. So that’s
why I don’t want to give way to say, “Hey, it’s
a male-female thing,” just yet. Because I’m convinced,
not that if my Japanese colleagues can do it I can do it, it’s
just that I see how they work in the suit. I’m like “Okay,
I should be able to do some of that.” Strengthwise, I do a lot
of weight lifting. When I look at those guys, we’re about the
same height, I think one of my JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency]
colleagues, he’s probably about three inches taller than me.
For the most part we all fall in this 5’11”, 5’8”
range. You can adjust the boot length to fit the height. The width
is where you have the problem, because you have these air pockets
moving around. So I’m convinced that as a woman I know I can
do this. I don’t have any doubt, especially looking at those
I’m like, “Okay, they know how to work the suit, and that’s
what it is.” I’ve learned. I’m getting better at
working the suit to my advantage so that it doesn’t wear me
out. We’re in the suit for six hours. That’s a long time
to have 300 pounds on, and then 300 pounds that take on— even
though it’s waterproof, it still takes on a little water. So
it becomes a little heavier. Plus we have a lot of great divers in
the pool who help us so they try to make it so that it’s more
spacelike. They will help you on things that are a one-G issue. So
for the most part we should be able to work the suit as well as any
So I’m convinced that we can do it. I’m convinced.
I understand you’re also training to be an ISS [International
Space Station] CapCom [Capsule Communicator].
The CapCom is the person who talks directly with the crew, and they
take all the input from the flight director, and the flight director
has taken all the input from the flight controllers. Whittled it down
to what the crew needs to know and has said to CapCom, “Tell
the crew this.” So we’re the interface with the crew.
That way the crew has one voice, and we’re all in agreement
as to what they should say. I haven’t gone into the mission
control yet, but we’re doing a lot of the simulations where
I’ve heard about those.
Epps: Oh yes.
I’ve done several of them. They’re very good for training,
because you learn a lot more about the systems in a lot greater detail
than we do in class. As a CapCom you never know the systems as well
as the flight controllers. It’s their job to know those systems
inside and out, but as a CapCom you hear what they’re doing.
You learn a lot more about the system. It could be the WHC [Waste
and Hygiene Compartment], or the toilet. It could be the toilet on
board. It could be the portable water dispenser. It could be just
a lot of the systems on board that we’ll get to know better.
So I think the office’s objective in having us do CapCom before
we go to space is so that we can understand what’s happening
on the ground as a crew member. When you become a crew member, you
can understand the issues that the CapCom are having, and how they’re
working out questions that we have for them, if we’re on Station.
Just to understand how the whole process works.
Having better situational awareness of what’s going on, so you
don’t get frustrated, you don’t say, “Well, they
never answered my question.” So it does help understanding,
giving you a good perspective of what’s going on.
You also work with the ISS Integration Branch.
Epps: I do.
The nice thing about working in that branch is that it’s not
as I guess work-intensive, in the sense that we have several really
good engineers that work the different topics. They follow everything,
because in the middle of working in these different groups we still
have training to do. Like I’m starting advanced EVA skills.
So even though we’re in these groups and we’re working,
it’s hard to follow everything day to day. The nice thing is
that we work closely with the engineers to try to go through different
procedures for different payloads. Vet out the procedures that would
be done on Station. So I work mainly with the struc and mech [structures
and mechanical] guys. So the Integration Branch is great because you
learn a lot about the systems as well. The whole objective in getting
us into these CapCom and Integration Branch is so that we’ll
know the Station very well before we even go there.
That has helped out tremendously. Understanding what systems break
all the time, and why they break and how to fix them so that we don’t
have those issues in the future, it really helps just the situational
awareness of the Station and what to expect when you go there. So
it’s very nice, very nice.
Sounds like a great place for an engineer, like yourself.
Epps: It is.
It is. I notice that here I’m constantly in the learn mode,
which is different than any job I’ve had. Working different
topics. You’re learning, but you almost feel like a student
most of the time. Which is very different, and I like it a lot, don’t
get me wrong, just very different.
Tell me about working on NEEMO [NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations].
I understand you were a CapCom for one of those expeditions.
to me was one of those things. I said, “This sounds like one
of the best analogues to space.” How do you simulate going to
space, with some of the difficulties? You can’t come home immediately;
you’re in a place with a small confined environment with a group
of people. You’re friends, but these aren’t your family
members. You have to basically perform tasks and do different things.
So to me I thought NEEMO, even apart from the National Outdoor Leadership
classes that we do, the NOLS classes, I thought NEEMO was one of the
best analogues to space. I was mainly curious about it. I ended up
getting the opportunity to be a CapCom and getting a bird’s-eye
view of what goes on at NEEMO.
I think just being there for that week did confirm that it is one
of the best analogues to space. So the fact that they ask CB, the
Astronaut Office, to send astronauts to be crew members—I really
like that idea. Being a CapCom, it was interesting because I actually
got to participate in some of the simulations that they were doing,
like the medical situations. Even the time delay, that was very interesting.
The time delay was an eye-opener to how frustrating that could be.
If you’re going out to Mars, and it takes 30 seconds for a message
to get there, and then 30 seconds for it to come back, it can be very
frustrating. I think from that I realized that if you’re going
to Mars or someplace like that you’re going to pretty much for
the most part be autonomous. You have to do things a little differently,
To me I still think that NEEMO is one of the best analogues to space.
There’s other things that we do as far as spaceflight training
and readiness, but NEEMO to me was one of the best analogues.
Being stuck out in the middle of the Canyonlands [National Park, Utah]
with NOLS, that was interesting for ten days. It is not like space
in the sense that we’re out in the middle of a wilderness as
far as NOLS goes. We’re out in the middle of a wilderness. The
thing that is like going to space is that you’re on this expedition,
you’re with a group of people, you’ve got tasks to perform.
You have limited supplies. You have what you have. There’s a
lot of good analogies, but NEEMO to me was one of the best, because
you can’t just come out of the habitat and come up. You have
to wait. You have to decompress. You have to do this, and you have
to do that. It’s not immediate evacuation if anything goes wrong.
If there’s a medical emergency you have to take care of your
crewmate there and get them stable. You really have to work as if
you were on Station. You can’t just come back home immediately.
It’s interesting, because they couldn’t just come back
home. It was very good training, very good training. Just a realization
of okay, if you go to doing long-duration missions or if you’re
doing a Mars expedition, you’re going to be on your own. You
really have to train up. I think after seeing that I realized that
the field medical training was going to be very important to me, because
if anything happens you really have to be able to take care of yourself.
If anything happens to your crewmate you got to be able to take care
of them. It’s an eye-opener.
Tell me, if you would, how race perhaps has impacted your career here
at NASA, if at all.
I read that question I thought I’m not sure how it’s impacted.
I think partly because I’m one of those people. I’m very
focused on work and getting things done. I haven’t had any incidents
or anything like that. I don’t think it’s played a role.
I think I’ve been required to do the same tasks as my colleagues.
I can’t say that I’ve been singled out for this or for
that because of it. You know what I mean? Right now I don’t
have an inkling that it has impacted my role here at JSC. So I can’t
answer that well right now, which is good. I think it’s a good
What about gender? Do you think that’s played any role in your
Epps: I don’t
think gender has played a role. When I was talking about the EVA suit
and people say, “Well, the woman this and that,” I’m
convinced, maybe it’s just because I’m stubborn, I don’t
think that being male or female makes a difference. I don’t
think being a female even has played a role. I think a lot of us,
especially in the corps, we want to perform just like our male counterparts.
Whatever they can do we need to perform well too because we’re
going to be a member of that crew, and we want to be a productive
member of the crew. So we have to be able to perform as they do. I
do know that there’s a difference in muscle, difference in things
like that. I’m not saying that we’re the same as men,
but we should be able to perform as well as any of the guys who we
would end up going to space with. So I don’t think gender has
really impacted [me].
Maybe I’m not focused on it either. It’s not that I don’t
notice those things. I think I have this tendency to focus on the
tasks that I need to do in order to get to the next level. I want
to be one of those people who can perform just as well at the highest
level that we need for a crew to go to space. I think everyone has
that mindset. “Well, being a female shouldn’t matter.”
I think early on when Shannon [W.] Lucid and those guys came on it
may have played a great role. I think it’s leveled out a little,
well a lot, because I don’t notice it. You know what I mean?
I don’t notice it at all, but I’m not looking for it either.
Is there anybody who you would single out as someone who has mentored
you since you came to work here at JSC?
Epps: Oh yes.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of great people. Clay
[Clayton C.] Anderson, I ended up spending a lot of time talking with
him. More than I ever expected. One thing I like about Clay is that
he’s got the greatest intentions. He’s flown three times.
He’s got a lot of good advice as well. He does try to mentor
and give me good advice and make sure I don’t do anything to
get myself into trouble. It’s interesting. I never expected
to find that Clay Anderson would be my mentor.
Sandy [Sandra H.] Magnus has helped me out tremendously too. She was
extremely busy with [STS]-135 though so I didn’t want to hound
her for information while she was doing it. The first couple times
I was in a suit, it was a weird environment. She said, “Oh,
well, you need to do another suit fit check and see. We need to check
that again.” She actually took the time out, came over with
me, went through the suit, and said, “Oh, no, no. You got to
change your gloves. You got to fix this, you got to fix that.”
She helped me out tremendously. Sandy, she’s definitely an angel
in my book. She helped me out tremendously. I’m thinking about
the people that I spent the most time talking with. Clay Anderson
and Sandy are probably the two that I’ve spent the most time
[with]. Well, they’ve given me the best advice.
I’ve talked with Cady [Catherine] Coleman. She’s a sweetheart
too. I’ve talked with several other people as well. I got a
lot of information from Sandy as well as Clay. So it’s interesting.
I thought Clay was so busy. He’s so gregarious and doing all
these things. He takes the time out and chats with me and tells me
a lot of good things. So it’s interesting. I would have never
expected that. He’s been great. Between he and Sandy I think
I’ve learned quite a bit. Quite a bit.
I understand that you also like to mentor. You like to work with young
children and kids who are interested in science and technology. What
do you think sparked that? How have you been able to, as an astronaut,
inspire some of those kids?
I think what sparked that was the fact that when I was growing up
I had so many people who—I didn’t do anything—they
just reached out and helped me. I think I just want to pay it forward.
I don’t know if that makes sense. I look back, and I see how
many people were in the loop and just trying to propel me forward.
I think it’s important to reach back and say, “Hey, look,
if I can do this, you can do this. You got to put the time in to do
it.” Just encourage kids. I realize growing up that words were
very important. I don’t remember anyone telling me that I wasn’t
going to be a scientist. If there were one or two naysayers, I had
more data to confirm that they were not telling the truth. I think
wanting to encourage kids and tell them that you can do this and you’re
capable. Put the time in.
Try to give them advice on how to do it, because a lot of people think
that things just come instantly and if you don’t get it instantly
then you move on to the next thing. I’m like, “No, you
got to put time into it, and really put yourself into it.” Once
you find what you’re passionate about, if this is something
you really want to do, put the time into it, and get it done. Here’s
how you can get it done. So I think having so many people who helped
me inspires me to want to give back.
It was nice also when I went to work for Ford. There were several
people who were training students to become better at taking the SAT
[Scholastic Aptitude Test, a standardized admissions test for college].
That was quite impressive, other people wanting to help kids to do
this. I joined the Ben Carson Scholars. That was a volunteer organization
that tried to help kids in Detroit [Michigan] take the SATs, learn
how to take it, and teach them how to do much better at it. That was
very very rewarding, I think. Just having students who want [to improve].
Parents wanted to be involved as well and see that go forward. But
even beyond that, when I got back to DC there were a lot of people
who were volunteering to help students. I think one thing I wanted
to do was try to teach them to do something more very technical and
just become analytically minded. Even if you don’t use it in
the future, you go on to put together some business or something like
that, your mindset is such that you can do just about anything, if
you put your mind to it. You understand the time you have to put into
it, especially if you go to school for engineering. You understand
that it’s not just going to be a couple minutes here, and I’m
done studying. So to put something big together it takes time and
understanding that and putting the time and effort towards it.
Giving something back is huge for me, especially in the sense that
I had so many people helping me. How can I not do that? It’s
rewarding too to see a lot of kids. There’s this young man who
approached me while I was doing a PR [public relations] in Atlanta
[Georgia] at one of the Space Farm PRs. He said, “Well, how
do you do this? How do you do it?” I said, “Well, are
you putting the time in?” He said, “Well, how much time
do I need to put in?” I said, “Well, however much time
you need to get it done.” It was interesting to see his face
change. It’s like “Oh, well, I got to put time in.”
Yes, you got to put the time and effort in. You don’t poof and
automatically know how to do this. Putting the time and effort in.
He was a very nice young man. He was so grateful at the end of that
conversation. I thought putting time in is key. I think he just wanted
someone to talk to. Kids in general, just [to] have someone encourage
them to do, “Just go ahead and do it,” and put the time
and do in I think is very important, just someone to encourage them
It’s interesting. I had my twin sister and my mother. They always
said, “Well, you can do, do, do.” I realize that not every
kid has that. Sometimes they’re doing something totally different
than what their parents did. They may not have someone to say, “Well,
if this is what you want to do, go for it, and do good things.”
You mentioned that cover in 1992 of Mae Jemison and really how that
was such an important or significant event for you. What do you think
about being a hero now for kids?
unreal to me, when I think about that, because in fact I was in college
at the time. Gosh. When I looked at that picture of her on the magazine,
the image is just emblazoned. To think that that person could be me,
I can’t even fathom that. It’s funny, and I’m sitting
here reaching for words. I’m like trying to picture that. My
sister and I, we always felt like we were just doing what we [were
supposed to]; this is what we’re supposed to be doing. We never
felt like we were something out of the ordinary. We’re just
regular people doing what we’re supposed to do. People like
Mae on the cover, well, they’re different. We never felt like
we were anything but ordinary. We were just ordinary people doing
what we’re supposed to do. I guess having that mindset and thinking
that way, to think that that would be me is like, “Well, I don’t
know about that.” You know what I mean? I don’t know.
That’s hard to answer right now for some reason, because even
now I haven’t wrapped my mind around that.
Doing PRs is still new for me and nerve-racking, because I’m
like, “What do people want to hear from me? Do they really want
to hear what I have to say to this entire huge crowd.” I can
understand kids, can understand that fully. Even now it’s quite
overwhelming to have people approach me at different events and want
to talk to me because I’m in the astronaut program. I guess
when I see people do that I really want to give them the information
they want. I’m just here doing my job is how I see it. I’m
here at the behest of the taxpayer. We are privileged to be able to
go to space and do these things. So to think of myself as one of those
people on the covers is still hard for me to wrap my mind around that.
Very difficult. I don’t know why. So trying to envision that,
I still can’t see it yet. But maybe one day.
Well, it’s going to happen, you know that. I think the only
other question I had was if you would talk a little bit about working
with the government and working in private industry. How did that
differ? Then you worked for the CIA and now for NASA, two very different
for a private company is very different than working for the government
because cost and things like that are very different for a private
company. They’re all about profit, because this is someone’s
company. Working for the government, you don’t really make a
profit. It’s taxpayer dollars and different things. So two different
mindsets. Then for a company like Ford where manufacturing is so huge,
I really loved working there after coming out of graduate school,
because I was able to see how a project was done from end to end.
How it’s designed and then how it’s manufactured and then
how it’s marketed. So understanding that whole process of the
manufacturing of a car and how much it takes to get one car to roll
off the line, turn the key, and have it work. That was a very good
mindset for me.
When I started doing research on how to reduce vibrations into the
suspension, to give you a better ride, I had to understand that the
actuators that I was developing, they couldn’t cost $100 each
or $200 because they were going to design these for millions of cars.
So you can’t put a piece on there that’s going to cost
that much. So how do you make it as good but a lot cheaper? How do
you manufacture an actuator like this for millions of cars? Thinking
of design for manufacturing was what I think Ford taught me, which
I thought was huge at the time, and I still think is pretty big.
Then going over to the agency. Doing the research there, even though
some of it was reverse research, and just doing research in general,
it was very different because money wasn’t as big of an issue.
We weren’t building millions of things. We were building only
a few. So working at the agency, the big thing that I got there was
learning how to think in an operational mindset of how you would—like
you have these guys who go out in the field, and they just do stuff.
Like even a fighter pilot, they’re very operationally minded.
As a scientist, I like more details. I take time. I do this. Operators
just go out, and they—I can’t describe why they’re
very good at what they do and how they do it, because I like a lot
more detail. So trying to balance that. That’s one reason why
I volunteered to go over to Iraq and I volunteered for different things.
Just to get that scientist side and think about things from an operator’s
perspective as well.
I learned a lot working at the agency as well. Coming to NASA, NASA
is a very different government agency in the sense that I’m
constantly impressed with Johnson Space Center to see how people work
in order to get the astronauts to space, get them there safely and
back home safely. All the time and effort that they put into designing
things, fixing things, even down to fixing the procedures. So Johnson
is just very impressive. Then going over to Kennedy Space Center [Florida]
and NASA Glenn [Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio] and seeing all the
research that’s done. That is still like the general research
that I’ve seen. So it’s still a government agency, has
a government feel to it. But it’s very different than working
for the CIA.
The CIA is a government agency. Their whole thing is to collect foreign
data. I don’t know how to put that in a better way. So you work
very differently. You don’t really tell people about what you
do. You don’t give them any details or anything like that. It’s
nice to come out from under that classified environment, very classified.
Everything is classified. It’s nice to work in a lot more open
environment. It’s not stressful when you’re working in
it, but once you stop working in it, you realize wow, we were working,
we couldn’t tell people what we do, and there was a lot of aspects
that we couldn’t talk about, even though we were doing some
cool stuff. You can’t really talk about it at all. It’s
nice not to have to worry about that. It’s very nice. That classified
umbrella was different, very different so I do like working without
it, needless to say. Plus, people can know everything about what you’re
doing, which is nice, especially when you want to share with students.
You want them to know why it’s a great place to work.
Like at the agency, I thought it was a great place to work, and if
you were a student you could come in as an intern or something like
that. It’s a great place to work. But you couldn’t really
tell them everything, why it’s so great. At NASA you can tell
them everything about why it’s great to work here. So all three
companies are very different, but I think the nice thing for me is
that it created a more complete picture of design for manufacturing
and building things, to going to the agency, becoming a little bit
more operational and designing things for operational matters. So
when you design things for an operator how much do you need on there?
I’m still struggling with that even now. If you design something
for an operator, what should it look like? How many buttons should
it have? How fast? What information do they need? So the agency really
taught me that. Then coming to NASA and putting all that together
and doing it for myself actually. Understanding how things are designed
for manufacturing, what kind of payload can you put on the Station,
designing it well for the manufacturing, and designing it for the
Station, understanding all the different things that go into that.
Then even beyond that, as an operator now. I guess I didn’t
realize astronauts are operators. We’re operators in the loop.
We go to Station. We work closely with ground. Ground says, “Do
this.” We got to do that. We have procedures. We have different
things like that. So working as an operator now is very interesting.
Because I did research for so many years, it’s an interesting
change. It doesn’t automatically happen overnight, but I’m
getting there, which is nice.
It’s a new step.
Epps: It is.
It is. So it’s another level.
Are there any challenges that you think you’ve encountered since
you’ve come to work for the agency?
as far as personal?
Personal challenges or work on the program.
interesting, because I think for me the biggest challenge was that
when I came here my mother had passed away. I think the start of everything
was so difficult because of that. So having to go through that and
work through it for so many months it seems. It’s a challenge
trying to get your work done and not focus on that. I think things
may have started out a little interesting, but time heals all wounds.
As time goes by you come back to your normal self and you start doing
things as you normally would. So things become normal, which is nice.
So I think that was probably, for me, that was the biggest challenge
I think I’ve had since being selected. I thought it would be
oh, it’s just a couple months, I’ll be back to normal.
It takes a little longer than just a couple months. Realizing that
is half the battle. Everything’s normal now. You know what I
mean? I don’t know if that makes sense. But things begin to
normalize and you feel like yourself and you can do things as you
normally would. So it’s worked out pretty well.
Sounds like family is very important.
It’s interesting. My twin sister and I, we’re the youngest
of seven. It’s really bizarre because we were clustered together
growing up. As my brothers and sisters left the house it became just—my
parents had separated and divorced subsequently. So as everyone moved
out of the house it became really my twin sister and my mom and me.
It was like the three of us clustered together.
My brothers and sisters always helped and encouraged us. So yes, family
is very important. Yes it’s huge. I think with most people in
the corps, they may not say it like I do. I’m like, “Oh,
I’m wishy-washy.” Family is very important to everyone
in the corps, because your family really do—especially the guys
who are married with kids—they really sacrifice a lot to put
in the time and effort to get things done.
Well, is there anything else that you would like to talk about today?
I think we pretty much covered the questions that I had typed up as
we talked. But I wasn’t sure if there was something else. We’re
right at that time.
that was pretty much it.
Well, I really thank you for coming in today. I know that your schedule
is very hectic.
this was a good day to do this. Thank you. I hope it went well.
[End of interview]