Watkins laughed when asked whether she considers herself a millennial. “I am not as well-versed in social media as some of my peers. That makes me feel less like a millennial at times,” she said. “But I think an ideal of the millennial generation that I do kind of ascribe to is the idea of exploration and being passionate about that.”
The space shuttle program did influence Watkins in another way. Watkins said she has dreamed of being an astronaut since she was about 10 years old, when she was attending Judith Resnik Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, named for the NASA astronaut who was killed with her six crewmates in the Challenger explosion in 1986, two years before Watkins was born.
“I imagine that I must have had a conversation about my parents at some point about, who is Judy Resnick, what did she do?” Watkins said. “And I think that must have been when I was inspired by her story and led to this passion.”
Her decision made, Watkins said she focused on doing well in school. She went to Stanford after high school to study mechanical engineering, but switched to geology and environmental sciences after realizing she wasn’t passionate about the subject. She interned at NASA during college, working on the Phoenix lander that arrived on Mars’s surface in 2008. Watkins received a doctorate in geology from UCLA, where she studied landslides on Earth and Mars. Most recently, she worked in Caltech’s geological and planetary sciences division, studying the red planet through the eyes of the Curiosity rover. In 2009, she participated in a Mars simulation at a NASA research facility in Utah, roaming the desert in a spacesuit to protect herself from the pretend Martian atmosphere. “We intend to send her to Mars one day, folks,” said a NASA official last week as Watkins took the stage at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Watkins is ready to go—but not to stay. “As long as there’s a ride back, sign me up,” she said. “I have too many loved ones and too much work to do back here to go for a one-way trip.”
Watkins often imagines what it might be like to apply her knowledge of Earth’s geology to Mars, which NASA says it wants to reach by the 2030s. “When we go out into the field and are investigating rocks, we can hike around, look at the landscape, take in our surroundings, the topography,” she said. With the Curiosity rover, “we can only work with images, which are super high-resolution, but not quite the same thing as having boots on the ground.”
Watkins and her fellow recruits will report to Johnson Space Center in August to start two years of training, which includes learning Russian and bobbing in a giant indoor pool to practice spacewalks. She’ll work at Johnson’s astronaut office until she receives a flight assignment.
Watkins is the sixth African-American female astronaut in NASA history. Only three have been in orbit; Jeanette Epps, an aerospace engineer, will become the fourth when she launches to the International Space Station in May 2018. Watkins counts Mae Jemison, the engineer and doctor who became the first African-American woman in space in 1992, among her heroes.