Jeanette Epps still does not know why she was booted in January from this month’s International Space Station flight, where she would have made history as the first black crew member.
But she thinks it was a decision made by someone at NASA, not their Russian partners, she told reporter Megan Gannon on Friday at the Tech Open Air Festival. The interview recording can be viewed here.
“I don’t know where the decision came from and how it was made, in detail or at what level … I seriously do not believe it was the Russians, partly because I had been through the training with them and I was able to develop good working relationships with everyone there,” Epps said. “There were Russians, several of them, who defended me in the sense that its not safe to really remove someone from a crew that has trained together for years.”
NASA has relied on Russia to launch its astronauts to the International Space Station, since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Epps was slated to be on the Russian spacecraft, called the Soyuz, that rocketed to station earlier this month.
But in January, NASA abruptly announced that Epps was being booted from her June flight, replacing her with Serena Auñón-Chancellor, a Hispanic flight surgeon selected as an astronaut alongside Epps in 2009. Epps previously told the Houston Chronicle she did not have any medical or family issues that would have prevented her from flying.
The space agency did not offer an explanation, a decision that resulted in charges of racism erupting across social media. An online petition, which garnered thousands of signatures, was created, demanding both answers from NASA and her reinstatement.
In the Friday interview, Epps said she didn’t want to speculate as to whether the decision had racist or sexist underpinnings.
Trying to speculate “takes away from the mission and the things that [NASA] is trying to do and if that is the reason things like this happen, to me it’s even worse,” she said, adding that it didn’t seem to play a role previously.
When asked about Epps’ interview, a NASA spokesperson said they did not comment about personnel matters.
Epps, who is back in Houston, said she is working on the Orion program, meant to eventually take humans to Mars, and in mission control.
“I’m back in office doing the same thing I was doing for eight years when I was waiting for the mission,” she said.
Epps, from Syracuse, N.Y., worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for seven years before joining NASA as an astronaut in 2009. She would have been the 15th African-American astronaut to fly in space, according to the space agency, and the first black astronaut to live on the space station.
She told Gannon she hopes to have more answers from the agency later this summer.
Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at email@example.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.