Houston, We Have a Terp

Alum Astronaut Joins International Space Station

When Jeanette Epps M.S. ’94, Ph.D. ’00 moved into her new digs earlier this year, the quarters were tight and the area was short on dining options, but the views were out of this world.

The Terp blasted into space in March as one of four astronauts on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-8 mission, beginning a six-month stint as a flight engineer on the International Space Station (ISS). A NASA astronaut since 2009, she ventured into space for the first time and spoke with Terp two days after her arrival on the ISS.

“You can see [Earth] in pictures. You can even dream about those pictures,” Epps said. “But there’s just something that happens when you see it with your own eyes.”

Jeanette Epps waves from ISS while wearing red Maryland shirt

In an interview with UMD from orbit, Jeanette Epps M.S. ’94, Ph.D. ’00 discussed adjusting to her new digs in space.

The adventure had its roots in elementary school, when Epps’ older brother suggested that her stellar math and science grades could launch her into a career as an astronaut. After receiving her bachelor’s in physics from LeMoyne College, she earned graduate degrees in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, where she built models, tested rotor blades and developed code.

After working in Ford Motor Company’s Scientific Research Lab and then as a technical intelligence officer for the CIA, she used that experience to help pass a rigorous selection process at NASA. Although she was reassigned from flights on a Soyuz spacecraft and aboard a Boeing Starliner capsule, she continued vigorous training, including living in the claustrophobic environs of a cave and an undersea lab, mastering Russian and learning to fly T-38 jets.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself over these years training for spaceflight,” she said shortly before the launch. “I’ve learned a lot about my limitations, how far I can go, what excites me, what I’m afraid of, how I overcome those things and move forward. It is a great journey of self-exploration as well.”

During the early days at her temporary 250-mile-high home, Epps dealt with “puffy face” as the fluids shifted in her body, learned to use the “waste hygiene compartment,” aka space bathroom, and familiarized herself with the art of floating. Snacking on figs, dates and chocolate gave her a taste of home, and she enjoyed chats around the table with fellow Crew-8 members Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt and Alexander Grebenkin and others who soon departed from the station.

Once acclimated, they delved into the 200 experiments they’re conducting to advance space exploration and benefit life on Earth. Those range from plant studies to materials science to research on their own bodies, with blood draws and saliva samples offering a look at the impact of living in space.

“We’re basically the hands and eyes of all these scientists” back on Earth, she said.

For Epps, the sense of responsibility is intensified: She’s just the second Black woman to join the ISS crew. She hopes her work can inspire the next generation of scientists and researchers.

“We’re developing new technologies. We’re creating jobs, we’re creating interest in science, we’re creating more interest in STEM,” she said. “All the social issues that we have on Earth seem to be dwarfed by the magnitude of the things that we’re trying to accomplish.”


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Flight time from Earth to ISS: 27 hours, 35 minutes

Distance to ISS: 250 miles

Orbital velocity: 17,500 mph

Size of ISS: 108 meters long

Experiments to be completed: 200+