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UCLA grad makes history as 1st Black woman to embark on extended space mission

UCLA graduate Jessica Watkins will make history as the first Black woman to complete on a long-duration space mission after blasting off to the International Space Station early Wednesday morning.

The NASA astronaut and geologist is joined by three others aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft: NASA Mission Commander Kjell Lindgren, NASA Pilot Bob Hines, and Mission Specialist Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency.

This is the first NASA crew comprised equally of men and women, the Associated Press reported.

They launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and are headed to the space station for a six-month science expedition in microgravity.

While two Black women have previously visited the space station, Watkins will be the first to move in for an extended stay, according to AP.

“The reason that we’re able to arrive in this time is because of the legacy of those who have come before to allow for this moment,” Watkins told NBC News in January. “And then also recognizing that this is a step in the direction of a very exciting future. To be a part of that, is certainly an honor.”

NASA assigned Watkins to serve as a mission specialist on the agency’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission, which is the fourth crew rotation flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, according to the agency.

This is Watkins’ first trip to space since becoming an astronaut in 2017, NASA announced.

The trailblazing astronaut, who is on NASA’s short list for a moon-landing mission, earned a Bachelor of Science in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University in California and a Doctorate in Geology from UCLA.

Watkins has worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and was a science team collaborator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity.

The Colorado-native has won multiple awards and honors, including the Stanford Earth Early- to Mid- Career Alumni Award and the Caltech Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences Chair’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“For me, growing up and throughout my career, it’s been really important for me to see people who look like me or have my background or similar experiences in the roles that I aspire to, and contributing in ways that I aspire to contribute,” Watkins told NBC. “So to the extent that I’m able to do that for others, for other young girls or young people of color. I’m grateful for the opportunity to return the favor.”

In 2020, Pomona-born astronaut Victor Glover made history as the first African American to work at the International Space Station as a long-term crew member.

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