NASA Astronaut Jessica Watkins Celebrates 'Milestone' In Space Exploration

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NASA Astronaut Jessica Watkins is set to make HERstory on Saturday (April 23), as the fifth Black woman to go to space and the first Black woman to serve on the International Space Station.

Dr. Watkins is a UCLA-trained geologist who will be conducting research during the six-month stint alongside fellow NASA Astronauts Robert Hines and Kjell Lindgren and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency.

The 33-year-old Maryland native joined NASA as an intern and has previously shared her excitement about the trip and the shoulders she stands on.

"We have reached this milestone, this point in time, and the reason we're able to arrive at this time is because of the legacy of those who have come before to allow for this moment," Watkins said. "Also, recognizing this is a step in the direction of a very exciting future. So to be a part of that is certainly an honor."

Watkins is set to join the likes of Dr. Mae Jemison, who made history in 1992 as the first Black woman to go to space; Stephanie Wilson, who has set the record as the Black woman who spent the most time in space; Joan Higginbotham, an electrical engineer and astronaut from Chicago; and Sian Proctor, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft.

Watkins' inter-galactic trip is drawing praise among diversity and inclusion advocates, while also shedding light on barriers within the space industry.

"You know there's not enough of us," groundbreaking NASA Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison told NBC News. "Women are underrepresented in science, although it's getting better in some ways," she added.

Dr. Jemison knows firsthand about the "gatekeeping, both conscious and unconscious, that keeps people out," noting that "once you are there, it's 'where do you fit?' People hold you to a stereotype of what they consider a scientist," she said.

The industry is also taking a self-assessment to improve inclusion. A report from the Space Frontier Foundation found that 90% of the astronauts sent into space have been white men. Advocates and professionals like Dr. Jessica Watkins are taking steps to propel diversity in the space industry forward.

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