NASA has caused a bit of a stir by removing astronaut Jeanette Epps from an upcoming mission – who was set to become the first African-American to join the crew of the International Space Station (ISS).
In a short statement, NASA said that Epps would be returning to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston “to assume duties in the Astronaut Office,” adding that she would be considered for future missions.
She had been due to launch in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on the Expedition 56/57 mission, scheduled to launch just months from now in June 2018. Now she will be replaced by American Serena Auñon-Chancellor, who was originally due to fly on the Expedition 58/59 mission in November 2018.
Epps’ planned launch had drawn considerable attention. In 2015, Spaceflight Insider said her selection as both a woman and an African-American “demonstrates that the US space program has come a long way since its beginnings in the late 1950s.”
NASA has not given a reason for her de-selection, but in an email to IFLScience, a spokesperson said a “number of factors are considered” when making flight assignments. “Decisions are personnel matters for which NASA doesn’t provide information,” they added.
Epps would not have been the first African-American in space, nor the first on the ISS. More than a dozen flew on Space Shuttle missions, some of which visited the ISS. The last African-American to go to space was Colonel Benjamin Alvin Drew in 2011 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.
Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1970, Epps was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2009 as part of a group known as “The Chumps” – the first group of astronauts to be selected for the post-Shuttle era. Of that group, Epps will have been the only US-born member not to fly after Auñon-Chancellor’s mission.
“The fact that I never saw anyone who looked like me doing this didn’t really matter to me, but I think it does matter to a lot of young girls,” Epps said in an interview in 2015. “So I do want to send them the message that if I’m doing this, there’s no reason you can’t do this too.”
This is not the first time an astronaut has been pulled from a flight. As Ars Technica points out, Ken Mattingly was pulled from Apollo 13 in 1970 just a week before launch for fear of rubella exposure, to which he was not immune. And in 1971, Joe Engle was bumped from Apollo 17 in favor of sending a scientist to the Moon, Jack Schmitt, the following year.
Still, NASA will no doubt face a number of questions regarding this de-selection. It’s unclear if any new details will be released in the future.