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Meet Jessica Watkins: The geologist bound for Mars




Jessica Watkins
Jessica Watkins
NASA

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You might call it the travel opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to be a NASA astronaut and go deeper into space than any human has before.

Roughly 18,300 people jumped at the opportunity to reach for the stars, the most people ever to apply. But NASA only picked twelve and not surprisingly, they were all the cream of the crop. 

2017 NASA Astronaut Candidates. Photo Date: June 6, 2017. Location: Ellington Field - Hangar 276, Tarmac.
2017 NASA Astronaut Candidates. Photo Date: June 6, 2017. Location: Ellington Field - Hangar 276, Tarmac.
Robert Markowitz - NASA

 

NASA Astronaut Candidate, Jessica Watkins.
NASA Astronaut Candidate, Jessica Watkins.
Courtesy of NASA

Take Two's A Martinez spoke with one of the newest candidates for NASA's corps of astronauts. Geologist, Jessica Watkins is a postdoctoral fellow at CalTech.

​​"Certainly, as we think about the long-term goal of expanding our human presence in the solar system, including Mars, it's very exciting to be a part of it."

Interview Highlights 

From the Mars rover to roving Mars

This self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars, plus three exposures taken during Sol 270 to update the appearance of part of the ground beside the rover.
This self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars, plus three exposures taken during Sol 270 to update the appearance of part of the ground beside the rover.
/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

I work mostly on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. There's the operations side where I'm helping a large, international team of scientists and engineers that come together on a daily basis to help decide where we want the rover to go based on the images that come down. And then, decide what we want to do there as well. What do we want to analyze and how do we want to analyze it? Once the scientists have decided that, then we turn it over to the engineers, who then turn that into commands to send up to the rover to execute the next day. 

Rocks on Mars aren't too different from those on Earth

Being a geologist and having most of my training be in terrestrial geology, we are actually able to translate those main, fundamental geologic principles to the surface of Mars. We can use images to get a sense of where the surface is currently. And then, we kind of back out, put together the story of how those rocks must have gotten to that point, and what must of happened in their history for the surface to look the way it does now. 

The cool part is, they're not that different. Or in a lot of ways, they're pretty similar. That been part of the reason why I've been so passionate about Mars, is that is has so many similarities. And I think because of that, we can learn a lot about Earth as we study Mars. 

Training to be an NASA astronaut 

I head down to Houston in August and we'll start our two year training period with the other 11 classmates that have been selected with me. We're going to be doing a lot of different things. Looking at the systems at the International Space Station, robotics, flight training, learning the Russian language. And I'm really excited to have such a diverse set of things that we're learning, but also, to learn from each other. The team of people that they've chosen are all amazing people and all have their own individual expertise. And I'm excited to learn from their individual expertise throughout that process. 

There's a whole group of people who work on, what do we need in order to go to space? Where are our muscle groups... that need to be stronger than others, in particular as we start thinking about long-duration space travel. There's definitely a lot that we can learn from astronauts that have come back from space and how their bodies have responded that gives us some indication of what we can do to prepare. 

Staying healthy in zero gravity

There's a treadmill that you strap yourself into. There's a bike but it doesn't actually have a seat because there's no need to sit down in space. So there are these pieces of exercise equipment that mimic those on Earth that provide some of that weight lifting and some of that resistance that we need to maintain our health. 

Diversity in the corps of astronauts 

I think diversity is important for a couple of reasons. First, I think it's important that everyone bring their own set of experiences and their own set of perspectives, particularly as you approach a problem. If people approach a problem in different ways, then you have a higher chance of being successful at solving that problem. So, I think that's one important piece of diversity.

The other piece is more the exposure side of it. I think it's important for young people and young girls to be able to see somebody who looks like them, doing the things that they aspire to do and do cool things like go into space. 

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have lots of mentors which actually was really important in my development in getting me to this point. I certainly looked up to Dr. Mae Jemison who was the first African-American female in space. And she kind of provided that exposure... where she was somebody that I could look up to and see that achieving the impossible was actually in the realm of possibility. 

Quotes edited to clarity. 

Want to know more about NASA's newest class of astronauts? 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Yu1uOB2-_E

To hear the full interview with Jessica Watkins, click on the media player above.