On Friday, April 7, NASA astronaut and former Caltech postdoc Jessica Watkins returned to campus to share the story of her career and her experience aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
During her talk in the Beckman Auditorium, Watkins reflected on her time at Caltech in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS), described her career trajectory from researcher to astronaut, and shared videos and anecdotes from her time in space.
The evening began with an introduction by Watkins's former postdoctoral mentor, John P. Grotzinger, Caltech's Harold Brown Professor of Geology and Ted and Ginger Jenkins Leadership Chair in GPS, who recalled when Watkins asked to join his lab.
"She said, ‘I want to come work in your group so I can learn about Mars because I want to go to Mars someday,'" said Grotzinger. "The rest is history."
Watkins emerged on stage to a long round of applause from a packed house with many young children in the audience.
"Thank you so much for the warm welcome. It is a true honor and privilege to be here with you all tonight," she began "It really does feel like coming home, coming back to Caltech."
As a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech, Watkins worked on research for the Mars Curiosity rover, doing both science and operations as part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which Caltech manages for NASA.
"But of course," she continued, "I didn't start here. So, I want to take you through a bit of my journey the best way I know how: through field photos as a geologist."
Watkins shared an image of a floating geological map of Mars inside the ISS and described her origins as an undergraduate at Stanford, first majoring in mechanical engineering, balancing her time as a student athlete on the rugby team, and eventually falling in love with geology and switching her major.
"The main reason I enjoyed geology so much was because of the concept of planetary geology," said Watkins. "This notion of being able to study the surface of another planetary body was so exciting to me. And then in graduate school, I was able to study the surface of Mars."
Watkins earned her PhD from UCLA, researching landslides on both Earth and Mars, and participated in several internships at JPL. Eventually, she joined Grotzinger's lab at Caltech, began working on the Curiosity rover, and applied to become a NASA astronaut.
Watkins was selected out of 18,000 applicants and, as Grotzinger described in his introduction, was "released from her responsibilities at the California Institute of Technology" to begin two years of astronaut training. After training, Watkins was assigned a long-duration mission to the ISS as a member of SpaceX Crew-4, making her the first Black woman on an ISS crew.
In April 2022, Watkins and her three crewmates embarked to the ISS in SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft.
"We spent 17 and a half hours inside the Crew Dragon, and then out of the blackness of space, this appears—the International Space Station, our home for the next six months," said Watkins, sharing a photo of the ISS from the Crew Dragon.
"Of course, the reason that we go to the ISS, this international orbiting laboratory, is to do science. We were able to participate in over 250 different scientific experiments while we were on board."
A true Techer, Watkins emphasized her passion for research and described some of the experiments she and her crew conducted: from materials science to microgravity combustion, fluid dynamics, robotics, growing plants without soil, and even studying the effects of long-duration spaceflight on human biology, taking samples from their own bodies and freezing them for further analysis back on Earth.
Perhaps the most memorable moments of the talk came when Watkins spoke over a video reel of her journey from Earth to space, narrating each clip. The audience laughed along at the crew's zero-gravity shenanigans aboard the ISS: from creating floating, shimmering bubbles of water in the air to passing around crewmate Kjell Lindgren like a beach ball.
"Some of our favorite times as a crew were when we gathered in the cupola," said Watkins, referring to the space station's observation window dome facing the earth. "We just watched the world go by together, often in stunned silence, amazed at how beautiful our homeland is."
The audience had a glimpse at these wonders as Watkins shared striking footage from the cupola: glowing orange networks of city lights at night, strobe-like lightning in storm clouds that spanned continents, and breathtaking green aurora that blanketed the earth's curved horizon.
"We had the privilege to be in orbit during some times of high solar activity, which created these geomagnetic storms producing just phenomenal aurora," said Watkins. "Sometimes the aurora extended to low enough latitudes that our orbit was essentially flying right through them, so to be in the cupola and watch the aurora dance around you was just absolutely incredible."
After a total of 170 days in space, Watkins and her crewmates returned to Earth in a quick descent, less than five hours, making it the fastest return trip from the ISS to date.
To conclude her talk, Watkins engaged with the audience. Several children, including a troop of young Girl Scouts, lined up to ask increasingly adorable questions like:
"Why do you have to wear a helmet in space?"
"What does it feel like when you blast off?"
"Can you touch Mars?"
And "Why are there so many wires?"
The final question of the night, posed in a tiny voice by a girl shorter than the seats in the auditorium, was: "What can I do to start being a astronaut?" The audience erupted in a chorus of "awwws" and a round of applause.
"Just keep doing what you're doing, dreaming big, and finding ways to do science," replied Watkins. "And I look forward to seeing you on Mars someday."