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Stanford Earth graduate may be Mars bound

Sign me up, as long as there’s a ride back.

Jessica Watkins
Photo credit NASA

Jessica Watkins was home in bed with a cold when she got the call informing her that she was going to be a NASA astronaut.

“We knew we were going to receive a phone call that day, and it was going to be either ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’” says Watkins (BS ’10). “I answered the phone, and [NASA Johnson Space Center Flight Operations Director] Brian Kelly was on the line. He said, ‘How are you doing, Jessica?’ I said I was feeling a bit under the weather and he said, ‘Maybe we can help with that.’ That’s when I knew it was a positive call.”

The phone call last May confirmed that Watkins was one of a dozen men and women selected from more than 18,300 applicants to be part of NASA’s 2017 Astronaut Class, which began training at Johnson Space Center in Houston last August.

For the next two years, Watkins and her classmates will be taught the various skills necessary to become 21st-century astronauts, including International Space Station systems, robotics, spacewalks, flight training, and — because NASA is still reliant on the Soyuz spacecraft — the Russian language. “Our training will be very diverse,” Watkins says. “I’m really excited about that, being able to have my hand in a lot of different cookie jars, and learn a lot of new skills.”

When she graduates in two years, Watkins will be one of the youngest astronauts in NASA’s history, and one of eight women astronauts with Stanford degrees.

A framework for life

Gaining entry into the NASA astronaut training program puts Watkins one step closer to achieving a childhood dream she’s had since she was 10 years old and learned about Judith Resnik, the second female astronaut in space, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. “I had a conversation with my parents about who she was and what she did, and that’s when I realized that going into space was a viable career option,” Watkins says.

Growing up in Colorado, Watkins says that her mother, a financial manager, and her father, a management consultant, always stressed the importance of education and allowed their children to pursue their own interests. So when their youngest daughter told them she wanted to be an astronaut, they were supportive. “I definitely wouldn’t be here without their continual support,” Watkins says. “They’ve been on this journey with me throughout the entire process, so in a lot of ways it’s a dream come true for them as well.”

Now 29, Watkins says she is better able to articulate the reasons she wants to be an astronaut than did her 10-year-old self. “One is the ability and opportunity to serve my country. That's quite an honor and a responsibility, and so being an astronaut is one way to do that,” she says. “I also think that the thing about human spaceflight is that it pushes us to the limits of our capabilities on all different levels. It pushes the limits of our technological, scientific, psychological, and physical capabilities. Because of that, it is something that brings people together in a way that not a lot of other things do. It’s something that is bigger than some of the divisions that we create amongst ourselves.”

Planning for the stars

The goal of joining the NASA astronaut corps sustained Watkins through her early education and later as an undergraduate at Stanford. “It’s not something that you can pursue every waking moment, but it provides a framework for your life, and as long as you stay within that framework, you keep that door open,” Watkins says.

Jessica and friends
Jessica Watkins (left) and some of her friends at Stanford's Senior Dinner on the Quad event in 2010. Image courtesy of Jessica Watkins.

At Stanford, Watkins initially majored as a mechanical engineer, but quickly switched to Geological and Environmental Sciences (now Geological Sciences) after realizing that was where her true passion lay. Watkins says her aha! moment came while flipping through the Stanford catalog and coming across a course called What Makes a Habitable Planet?, taught by Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center. “I was like, ‘Wow! This class sounds awesome. What major is this?’” Watkins recalls.

That chance introduction to planetary geology marked a turning point in Watkins’ life. “It was a way for me to study space and keep my eyes on the stars while staying within the framework that would make me eligible to be an astronaut,” she says.

Earth Sciences allow you to answer questions in a tactile way

The Earth Sciences helped satisfy Watkins’ curiosity about the world and provided a means to explore it. “Geology investigates questions about the world in a way that’s very tactile, that’s very hands-on,” she says. “It allows you to answer questions about things that you can hold in your hands.”

rugby team
Jessica Watkins (third from left) and her Stanford Women's Rugby teammates immediately after winning the National Championship in 2008. Image courtesy of Jessica Watkins.

One of Watkins’ fondest memories at Stanford is the work she did with Don Lowe, whom she met during her junior year when she was interning at nearby NASA Ames and exploring the feasibility of simulating Martian soil for a research project. “She wanted to put together earthly ingredients to try to create a soil-like material that could be used to test the viability of growing plants on Mars,” remembers Lowe, a professor of Geological Sciences at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Lowe remembers Watkins as an excellent and determined student. “What one accomplishes in science is generally 50 percent smarts and 50 percent effort and motivation. Jessica excelled in both,” says Lowe, who is the Max Steineke Professor in Earth Sciences at Stanford.

Watkins also excelled in sports. She played rugby at Stanford for four years and helped her team win the 2008 National Championship. “That was a lot of fun, but also a very good lesson for me,” she says. “It helped me understand the importance of dedication, hard work, and teamwork, and how that can pay off in a really big way.”

Mars beckons

The Red Planet has remained an abiding interest for Watkins. In 2009, she participated in a Mars simulation in the Utah desert. After graduating from Stanford and earning a PhD in geology from UCLA, Watkins accepted a postdoc position at the California Institute of Technology, where she helped plan the daily activities of the NASA Martian rover Curiosity and studied the geologic history of the Red Planet’s Gale Crater.

Watkins’ timing couldn’t have been better. NASA plans to send humans on a round-trip mission to Mars in the 2030s, and the 2017 astronaut class was specifically selected with the Red Planet in mind. When the space agency began accepting applications for the current class in 2015, then NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that NASA is “on an ambitious journey to Mars and we’re looking for talented men and women from diverse backgrounds and every walk of life to help get us there. … This group will launch to space from U.S. soil on American-made spacecraft and blaze the trail on our journey to the Red Planet.”

Given her background and experience, chances are good that Watkins could be one of the first humans to set foot on another planet. “She is as well prepared as anyone coming in as a new astronaut could be for being a member of a future Mars mission,” Lowe says.

For her part, Watkins says she’s ready to go. “It would be pretty cool to be able to ground truth some of the research that I’ve done,” she says. “That would be super exciting. I say, ‘Sign me up,’ as long as there’s a ride back.”

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