Nasa is sending an African-American astronaut to the International Space Station for the first time.
The traveller is Jeanette Epps, a physics and science whiz who used to work for the CIA as a technical intelligence officer. Epps will head to the ISS as a flight engineer in 2018. Her commander will be Andrew Feustel, a veteran astronaut.
“Each space station crew brings something different to the table, and Drew and Jeanette both have a lot to offer,” said Chris Cassidy, chief of the Astronaut Office at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“The space station will benefit from having them on board,” said Cassidy.
A dozen or so African-American astronauts have travelled on US space shuttle missions but Epps will be the first African American on the space station.
She was selected in July 2009 as one of 14 members of the 20th Nasa astronaut class. Her training included Russian language, so as to be able to talk to cosmonauts on the ISS.
Epps holds a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland.
Two missions announced
Nasa also announced two unmanned missions to asteroids designed to study one of the earliest eras in the history of the solar system. They have been baptized Lucy and Psyche, and Nasa hopes to launch them in 2021 and 2023, respectively.
The period Nasa wants to learn more about is an era less than 10 million years after the birth of the sun.
The Lucy mission -- named for a famous, critical hominin fossil set found in Ethiopia in 1974 -- will involve sending a robotic spacecraft to study Jupiter’s so-called Trojan asteroids. These are thought to be relics of a much earlier era in the history of the solar system.
Meanwhile the Psyche mission aims to explore a huge, one-of-a-kind metal asteroid, called 16 Psyche, that is about three times farther away from the sun than the Earth is.