As a NASA astronaut, Jeanette Epps ’92 lives in a world in which isolation is often essential. Epps has spent days alone under water and in the wilderness, steeling herself for what life might be like during a mission to deep space. She has also stood in middle of the bustling mission control room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, marveling how simple it is to communicate with the astronauts in the International Space Station as they float 250 miles above the surface of the earth. Yes, it’s true. Epps and her colleagues are often separated by a great physical distance, but they work together as if they were standing shoulder to shoulder. The success of their collective mission – and their very lives – depend upon it.
Epps has been thinking about this duality a great deal lately. Like hundreds of millions of Americans, she is spending most of her time at home, practicing social distancing as the world copes with the effects of a global pandemic. She is heartbroken by the news of lives lost, neighborhoods upended and dreams deferred, yet deeply heartened by the heroic work of those on the front lines of this health crisis and by the countless acts of generosity performed by ordinary citizens. She has come to the realization that NASA’s motto “for the benefit all” might also be appropriate for those fighting to stop thse spread of the Coronavirus. And as difficult as this moment in human history is, she believes that one bit of good might come out of it: It might just bring all of us a little bit closer to one another.
Epps was a physics major at Le Moyne. She credits the College with training her to be a good citizen, to make ethical decisions and to find God in all things, and she graduated wanting to create a better world. She has carried that ethos with her ever since, first as a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, then as an engineer at Ford Motor Company and a technical intelligence officer at the CIA, and most recently as an astronaut. She continues to do so in the wake of the current health crisis. While things like flying might be out of the question for now, Epps remains as committed to her work as ever, communicating with others digitally through apps like Zoom and FaceTime, exercising five to six days a week in order to stay in shape, and reading extensively about NASA’s next mission, the creation of a vehicle to bring humans to the moon and Mars.
And she is reflecting on what is perhaps the most important lesson that she learned at Le Moyne – to strive for the magis, or the “greater,” the “more.” And even now, in the face of so much challenge and uncertainty, Epps sees this ethic everywhere she turns. She sees it in her 9-year-old niece, who in addition to mastering online learning is sewing face masks for those who in need, in her colleagues who are working to design inexpensive ventilators in order help to save the lives of those with COVID-19, and in her friendships, which have grown even stronger in the recent weeks and months.
Epps also sees tremendous promise in tomorrow’s Le Moyne students. They will undoubtedly be problem solvers. They will continue to build upon the advancements that have been made in everything from technology to health care. They will establish businesses as committed to people and the planet as they are to profit. They will forge partnerships with individuals across the globe in order to aid all of humanity. This is a generation that, once the current challenge has been addressed, will have the capacity and the wherewithal to continue to care for the earth even while they explore the moon and Mars.
“Every student at Le Moyne has the potential to be extremely great,” Epps said, “and not just that, but they’ll be good too.”