It was a big deal to many when it had been announced that Jeanette Epps was going to be the "first black crew member to live on board the International Space Station". On Thursday, January 18th, however, it was announced that she would no longer be going to the International Space Station in June of this year as previously scheduled. Instead, she would be a candidate for later assignments, while fellow astronaut Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor would be taking her place.
NASA did not make a comment as to why this crew change had occurred, but according to the Washington Post, Epps' brother had accused the organization of racism in a (now deleted) Facebook Post. He had stated: “My sister Dr. Jeannette Epps has been fighting against oppressive racism and misogynist in NASA and now they are holding her back and allowing a Caucasian Astronaut to take her place!” In addition to this statement, he had linked to a moveon.org petition that is hoping to reinstate Epps on this crew to the ISS. As of the writing of this post, the petition is hoping to gain 3,000 signatures, and has 2,379 signatures at the current time.
Others had speculated that the crew change could have been due to health or family reasons that NASA would not announce on and that Epps may want to keep private. However, according to the aforementioned Washington Post article, Epps stated that there had been no health reason or family reason to keep her behind. She also said that she would not comment on her brother, Henry Epps', post about the situation. The only thing she did comment on regarding her brother's post was that no one in her family had created the petition he linked to.
It's important to note that Epps' removal from this mission is not something that is an isolated incident. Many astronauts have been bumped from missions before for various reasons. Miriam Kramer, writing for Mashable, notes in one of her articles on the situation that NASA's Ken Mattingly was pulled from the Apollo 13 crew just a few days before their scheduled launch because he was exposed to German measles".
There's reason to believe that Jeanette Epps is not going to be excluded from future missions. Former NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, says that these crew changes are common, and most of the astronauts go on to go into space at later dates. "The exceptions are very few and far between," He said.
It's more than likely that we will not get an official reason from NASA themselves, as they often do not comment on the crew changes. O'Keefe has a couple speculations of his own, however, as to why Epps was replaced on this particular mission happening in June. One of them was the idea of a health concern, which as previously stated, Epps debunked herself. Another, however, stated how Epps and Auñón-Chancellor had different skill sets that may have determined who was better suited for this specific assignment. "Dr. Epps is an engineer. The astronaut replacing her is a medical doctor. [It] could well be there are now more human factors research projects on the mission manifest than material science research." Of course, though, he cannot say for sure what the reasoning was for Epps' replacement.
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Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of things STEM. Find her on Twitter.