Astronaut sets sights on Moon, Mars

WASHINGTON (AFP) — If you had the choice, would you rather go to the Moon or Mars? The question is utterly theoretical for most of us, but for US astronaut Jessica Watkins, it hits a bit differently.

“Whichever comes first!” Watkins says with a laugh, in a lengthy interview with AFP from her post on the International Space Station (ISS).

At 34, Watkins has many years ahead of her at the US space agency NASA, and could very well be one of the first women to step foot on the Moon in the coming years, as a member of the Artemis team preparing for upcoming lunar missions.

Missions to Mars are off in the future, but given that astronauts often work into their 50s, Watkins could conceivably have a shot. Either way is just fine, she says.

“I certainly would be just absolutely thrilled to be able to be a part of the effort to go to another planetary surface, whether it be the Moon or Mars.”

In the meantime, Watkins’ first space flight was a history maker: She became the first Black woman to undertake a long-term stay on the ISS, where she has already spent three months as a mission specialist, with three months to go.

The Apollo missions that sent humans to the Moon were solely staffed by white men, and NASA has sought over the years to widen its recruitment to a more diverse group of candidates.

The agency now wants to put both women and people of color on the Moon.

“I think it is an important milestone for the agency and the country, and the world as well,” Watkins says. “Representation is important. It is true that it is difficult to be what you can’t see.”

The Maryland native added that she was “grateful for all of those who have come before me… the women and Black astronauts who have paved the way to enable me to be here today.”

Born in Gaithersburg in the suburbs of Washington, Watkins grew up in Colorado before heading to California to study geology at Stanford University.

During her doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, her research focused in part on Mars and she worked on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which just celebrated 10 years on the Red Planet.

Watkins still has a soft spot for Mars. In fact, she has published a scientific study on the planet during her stint on the ISS.

“I would certainly call myself a geologist, a scientist, an astronaut,” she says.

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