Jeanette Epps isn’t the only astronaut to be bumped from a NASA mission
On Jan. 18, NASA announced that astronaut Jeanette Epps would not fly, as expected, to the International Space Station in June. The mission would have been historic, since she would have become the first African-American crewmember on the orbiting outpost.
The space agency hasn’t released any information about why Epps was benched from her planned mission, saying only that “these decisions are personnel matters for which NASA doesn’t provide information,” according to NASA spokesperson Brandi Dean. Epps will now work in the Astronaut Office at Johnson Space Center and await another possible flight assignment.
Epps’ removal from her planned flight isn’t without historic precedent.
NASA has benched astronauts before flights many times in its decades as a federal agency, and for many different reasons.
“Flight assignments have been changed often in the past at various stages of training for a variety of reasons,” Dean said via email.
Specifically, quite a few astronauts have been removed from their missions for health reasons.
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.
From the ground, Mattingly was part of the team that helped bring back the Apollo 13 crew to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded, putting the lives of the crew in serious danger and forcing them to abandon their planned moon landing.
Mattingly still earned a place in cinematic history, since he was portrayed by actor Gary Sinise in the movie Apollo 13.
“Long before Jeanette Epps was pulled from her upcoming space station expedition, astronauts such as Ken Mattingly in 1970 and Don Thomas in 2002 were reassigned due to medical issues, while Mark Lee was pulled from a 2001 space station assembly shuttle mission for reasons NASA never disclosed,” space historian and editor of collectSPACE.comRobert Pearlman said in an interview.
“To their crewmates’ credit, despite the interruptions, the missions went on as planned (or in the case of Apollo 13, went awry but at no fault of Mattingly’s replacement, Jack Swigert).”
NASA also replaced Jeff Ashby in 1997 due to an illness in his family, and other astronauts have been removed due to other medical or personal issues.
“NASA invests a lot of time, effort and money in training their astronaut crews, and stresses teamwork throughout, so the decision to remove an astronaut from a flight is never taken lightly,” Pearlman said.
Epps’s 2018 mission was announced in 2017 and it immediately went viral.
News organizations profiled Epps and wrote about her expected upcoming flight, making the news of her reassignment all the more surprising.
She has not yet flown to space.
Epps was chosen as part of NASA’s 2009 astronaut class as one of 14 candidates.
Her path to NASA is different from many other astronauts, however.
Epps started off as a NASA fellow and then worked at Ford Motor Company before spending seven years at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Epps was inspired to become an astronaut after watching the first class of women become NASA astronauts decades ago.
“It was about 1980, I was nine years old. My brother came home and he looked at my grades and my twin sisters’ grades and he said, ‘You know, you guys can probably become aerospace engineers or even astronauts,'” Epps said in a NASA video.
“And this was at the time that Sally Ride [the first American woman to fly in space] and a group of women were selected to become astronauts — the first time in history. So, he made that comment and I said, ‘Wow, that would be so cool.'”