NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins arrives at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in April 2022 with her fellow SpaceX Crew-4 astronauts. The crew was set to launch on a six-month journey to the International Space Station.
CNN  — 

Jessica Watkins is a self-described “rock nerd” with a doctorate in geology. So when she boarded her first mission to space as a member of NASA’s astronaut corps, she brought along photos of family and friends — and some rocks.

“Of course, I had to,” Watkins, 34, said in an interview during her six-month stay on the International Space Station, launching with her SpaceX Crew-4 crewmates in April before returning to Earth in October.

Her journey made history. Watkins became only the fifth Black woman ever to travel into space and the first to join a space station expedition. She became an official crew member of the orbiting laboratory that has hosted more than 260 people in its nearly 23-year history.

As a young girl, Watkins dreamed of traveling to space and even wrote a poem, called “My Little Astronaut,” describing that ambition in grade school, her mother told CNN affiliate WESH-TV in Orlando ahead of her daughter’s mission.

That desire became a reality as result of the zeal she brought to her academic pursuits, Watkins said in a January interview. And Watkins hopes she can instill that enthusiasm for knowledge into young people who aspire to be like her.

“One of the most important things to be able to share is just the importance of dreaming big,” Watkins said, “and really being able to find your path — find something that you’re passionate about.”

She previously described her love of geology, noting it allows her to function “as a detective.”

“You’re looking at different puzzle pieces, you know, (in) all kinds (of) different places,” Watkins said in a NASA video. “And you’re trying to bring those puzzle pieces together to get a full story, a full history of what has happened in a particular place.”

Watkins (from left) and crewmates Bob Hines, Kjell Lindgren and  Samantha Cristoforetti walk out of the crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center before their April 27 launch to the space station.

Diverse representation remains an issue in the space program, but opportunities for women and people of color are growing. Watkins’ astronaut class, selected by NASA in 2017, is one of the most diverse in the space agency’s history, and she hopes she can leave the door open for others.

“I see places where I wish there was more representation, but I definitely felt the impact of the representation that did exist,” Watkins said. It was valuable “to see people who looked like me who had backgrounds and experiences like me, in the roles that I aspired to, and contributing in the ways that I aspired to contribute.”

She counts astronaut Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space, as a key figure, and she drew inspiration from her parents and family members as well as teachers and mentors she met along the way.

“It will definitely be a priority for me,” she said, “to be able to kind of reach out and connect with the community that I hoped to do a good job of representing.”

Journey to space

Watkins grew up in Lafayette, Colorado, and received her undergraduate degree from Stanford University. Initially, she studied mechanical engineering, hoping it would help her pursue her astronaut dreams.

But that “was just not my passion,” she said in a NASA broadcast from space. “It was just not something that got me out of bed every morning.”

But flipping through Stanford’s course catalog, she discovered geology classes about searching for habitable planets that sparked her interest.

“Particularly the idea of planetary geology, the idea of being able to study rocks on the surface of another planet,” she said, “just absolutely enamored me and still does to this day.”

At Stanford, Watkins became a standout rugby star. As a sophomore, she scored the winning goal in Stanford’s 2008 national title game. As a result, her grandmother told CNN affiliate WESH she initially thought Watkins’ destiny was to be one of game’s best players.

Watkins takes notes during geology training in Arizona in 2019.

On reflection, Watkins said, immersing herself in the dynamics of a team sport as well as her studies prepared her for the grueling requirements of spaceflight.

“The international cooperation that is required to do what we do up here every day is exactly like that,” she said.

Watkins spent two years in basic astronaut training and another two years preparing for her space station journey. Boarding the SpaceX rocket, which carried her and three crewmates into orbit, for the first time was a pinch-me moment. But the months of dedicated practice made it also seem routine.

“It is this kind of exciting combination of emotions, as you’re sitting there on the rocket getting ready to launch,” Watkins told CNN. “But really, the launch itself is just amazing. And by the time the launch itself is actually occurring, you’re fully focused on the operational side of things.”

While in orbit

Throughout their time on the space station, Watkins and her crewmates worked closely with Russian cosmonauts, a task with increased geopolitical significance as the war in Ukraine strained relations between the United States and Russia.