Space agency NASA and private spaceflight company SpaceX announced Tuesday that they will bring back two astronauts from the International Space Station on a SpaceX rocket on Wednesday.
NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins and commercial astronaut Nick Hague, of the United States Air Force, will be the first African American and the first gay to fly together on a mission to the International Space Station.
Watkins, 48, the flight director for NASA’s Deep Space Gateway (or the Gateway, as it has been nicknamed in the past) is scheduled to arrive on the SpaceX Dragon capsule at the space station on Wednesday afternoon to conduct a spacewalk with NASA’s David Saint-Jacques of the French space agency, as part of NASA’s Crew Mission Integration Office program, NASA said.
Watkins and Hague had been in the midst of a Russian-led Soyuz rocket aborted after Hague lost consciousness during a planned launch last month. NASA said it was launching the mission, carrying Hague and his Russian colleague Alexey Ovchinin, even though Hague was in a situation where astronauts have to be fully alert for liftoff — from their suits, to the point that he couldn’t stay conscious during the countdown, according to the Associated Press.
The Space Exploration Technologies Corp. was forced to re-evaluate the landing site it was supposed to use after the aborted launch, which pushed back the capsule’s launch. Instead, it is planned to land the capsule back on land, NASA officials said.
Watkins, Hague and Saint-Jacques — along with astronauts Alexey Ovchinin, of Russia and Dutch astronaut Thomas Pesquet — will spend six months in space, where they will conduct research on biology, materials, human biology, life sciences, physiological science, engineering and exploration studies.
Watkins is scheduled to serve as Mission Specialist 2 on the mission, a brand new role that was created to open up a series of opportunities to further advance a space exploration program.
Watkins was first selected by NASA in 2003 as a member of the Astronaut Office. She has spent more than 300 days in space. She was also part of the NASA team that spent 16 days in orbit on the space shuttle Discovery during NASA’s STS-131 mission in 2010. In 2015, she flew to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to conduct six science missions as part of a six-month Expedition 46 mission. Watkins became the first woman of color to serve as one of NASA’s Crew Mission Specialists, a post she held on Space Shuttle Discovery’s mission and in 2013.
Watkins is a native of Columbus, Ohio, and received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State University. She will also be a first-time mom in a few months, NASA said.