United States of America
From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite, November/December 2020
Jeanette Epps, Ph.D.
Astronaut, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
A rich and varied aerospace career took Dr. Jeanette Epps from fundamental rotorcraft research at the University of Maryland to a scheduled mission on the International Space Station (ISS). The first operational flight of the new Boeing Starliner to the ISS is expected in late 2021, and Epps’ crew assignment keeps her immersed in research and engineering. She explained, “Once you’re assigned a mission, what happens is you start training on the systems and experiments you’re assigned. There’s a ton of different experiments that have to take place, and a ton of principal investigators that want their projects done on orbit.” Epps added, “We have to practice emergency scenarios together. It could be an ammonia leak into the cabin. It could be a fire. It could be a rapid de-pressurization. We start practicing what we would do in those different scenarios as a crew.”
Since Epps joined NASA in 2009, her astronaut duties have provided non-stop training opportunities at Johnson Space Center outside Houston, Texas; Star City, Russia; and elsewhere. “Learning to fly, even in the back-seat of a T-38 jet, has been extremely rewarding. Learning the Russian language and doing language immersion was very difficult, but it was very rewarding. I’m 49 now, and you’re constantly growing. Your brain is never stationary. You never get stuck in one place. There are always things that you learn.”
Epps observed, “Right now, some of the biggest things we’re learning are about the commercial crew vehicles, one with Boeing, one with SpaceX. We also have the Orion program starting up, so we’re learning a ton of geology on top of that for the moon. You never stop learning. That’s probably the most rewarding thing, even after a certain age. I thought, ‘It’s time to retire, almost.’ But you never really want to retire in this field.”
Epps grew up in Syracuse, New York, without engineering or aerospace influences. “A lot of people found it weird that I wanted so badly to go into aerospace,” she recalled. “I don’t know why that was exactly, but when I was nine years old, my brother came home from RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology] for the summer. My sister Janet and I had just gotten our report cards, and we had done well in math and science. I guess Sally Ride and a bunch of women had recently been selected as astronauts, so that was on my brother’s mind, and he said ‘You could be an astronaut!’ That seed was planted at nine years old that aerospace was the way to go.”
Twins Jeanette and Janet Epps were the youngest of seven children. Their mother, Luberta Epps, was a keypunch operator who focused family TV time on educational programs. The NASA astronaut recalled, “My mother wouldn’t let us watch the other channels, so we watched a lot of PBS all the time. There were tons of shows like NOVA introducing ideas on how to build things, how to construct things, and learning things like why is the sky blue. I grew up just wanting to know the ‘why’ behind something.”
Le Moyne College in suburban Syracuse provided study opportunities close to home. Epps noted, “Le Moyne didn’t have an engineering program, but they had a partnership with Potsdam [State University of New York] and Manhattan College where you’d do three years of physics and then go to an engineering school for two years and graduate with an engineering degree that way. I decided in my junior year at college that I would finish in four years and try to move on to graduate school.”
Le Moyne also offered practical internships. “I worked in the physics lab in my undergrad years. I did a lot of electronics work, a lot with integrated circuits and things like that. I also worked in Anheuser-Busch in Baldwinsville, New York, for both summers.” One internship took Epps to the University of Maryland [UMD] in College Park. “I wasn’t sure I was going to go on in engineering. I thought I was going to go to some National Lab and work there for a while and then go to graduate school.”
Meanwhile, a UMD retreat drew Epps’ sister to post-graduate studies in chemistry. “When she applied there, I waffled a bit, but when I visited the school a second time with her, I fell in love with the school. I wanted to talk to Dr. Chopra and see if there was any way a physics major could switch over to aerospace.” Inderjit Chopra was the founding faculty at what would become the UMD Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center.
Epps recalled, “I sat down and talked with Dr. Chopra for about two and a half hours. It just so happened I didn’t have money at that time to go to graduate school in the area I wanted — I wanted fixed-wing airplanes and space. Dr. Chopra said, ‘I’m in the rotorcraft department, and we have a lot of great research, especially research in these new materials.’ For some reason, when he said, ‘new materials,’ I thought, ‘I wonder what we can do with that stuff.’”
Epps started her UMD graduate research in 1992. “Everything I’d done to that point was hard-core physics. Dr. Chopra assigned me to work in the lab with Dr. Ramesh Chandra on composite beams. We wanted to find out if we changed the ply angles in a composite beam — not just the material but the angle — how would that change the properties of the beam.” The research led to a technical paper with Chandra in 1994, published in the Society’s Journal of the AHS in 1996.
Epps subsequently investigated using shape memory alloy actuators to tune composite beams, and her dissertation under Dr. Chopra: “In-flight tracking of helicopter rotor blades with tabs using shape memory alloy actuators.” The research was also published as a paper at Forum 56 in 2000 and in the Journal in 2004. Looking back on her rotorcraft research days, she offered, “Helicopters are still strange. How do you get them to go faster? That would be the one thing I would want, for them to go to higher speeds.”
During her graduate years at UMD, she saw talented researchers apply unsuccessfully to the NASA astronaut program. “There were amazing people applying, absolutely phenomenal people. I was asking, how does anyone get in if these people are not getting in? Once I was out of graduate school, I thought they would never pick me, so I put it on the back burner and didn’t really think about it anymore. I made my career what I wanted it to be. I took risks; they were calculated risks.”
With her PhD in aerospace engineering in 1999, Dr. Epps joined the Ford Motor Company research laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan. “It was an easy switch for me to go from helicopters to applying smart materials to cars for safety. We tried to work with magnetic shape-memory alloys a little bit, but we ended up working with magneto-restrictive fluids because of their energy density. We were able to show you could mount an actuator on the control arm of the vehicle and damp out a lot of the vibration as you’re driving along the road.” Epps also contributed to subsequent patents on automobile frontal collision location detectors used to coordinate safety systems.
Industrial research led Epps to government service as a technical analyst and project engineer at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including a tour with the Iraq Survey Group in Baghdad. “I was basically reverse-engineering a lot of things. That’s how I saw my role, as a reverse-engineering scientist. We worked on anything and everything that flies — fixed-wing, helicopters, unmanned systems. It could be [intercontinental ballistic missiles] ICBMs even.” She noted, “I got to go all over the world to different airshows. A lot of innovation has taken place all over the world, but not every country has the money. We invest a lot in aerospace, and we invest it wisely. The technology we have in this country is best in the world.”
Scientist to Astronaut
During her time in government, Epps found renewed interest in the NASA Astronaut Corps. “I was six years into working at the CIA, and there was another call for applications. One of people who did get in, Leland Melvin, called me and said, ‘They’re accepting applications. You should think about applying.’ I was 37 at that time and not sure I’d get in, but I’d learned so much working at the CIA, I wasn’t just a scientist anymore. I had become partially an operator. I wasn’t a pilot. I was more of a designer and developer. That to me was the ideal mix for an astronaut, someone who’s technical but can operate in the field as well.”
In 2009, Jeanette Epps was selected as one of nine American members of the 20th NASA astronaut class. She was selected for her first mission — the historic first flight on NASA’s CST-100 Starliner — on Aug. 25, 2020.
“I never dreamed that they’d actually pick me. I was thinking, ‘Here’s a whole different career, a whole different life, and you really have to gear up for it and be ready for it.” Epps’ assignments have included serving as CAPCOM — capsule communicator — in space station mission control and representing the astronauts on the station’s generic joint operations panel. “That panel is for everything that goes on the International Space Station,” she explained. “Power sharing from one solar panel to the other or shadowing the panel so you don’t get warping — there are any number of topics like that. We also have specific joint operations panels. I’m on a panel for one of the logistics vehicles that will dock with the Space Station in October.”
The astronaut corps mixes training and operational assignments. Epps observed, “It’s not what people think it is. You have a lot of academics when you come on board. To me, the hardest thing I’d ever done was get into graduate school, but I think everyone who comes on board can handle the academics. With a little training, you can handle all the physical things. With any job, there are cultural aspects you have to understand before you can really immerse yourself in the culture.” She concluded, “You have to be ready for it and be fully willing to engage in every aspect of the corps. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made for a lot of reasons.”