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Exclusive Q&A: Introducing Inspiration4 civilian astronaut Sian Procter

The accomplished geoscientist, educator, and artist is fulfilling a lifelong dream she shared with her late father as she prepares to join the first all-civilian crew heading into space.

Exclusive Q&A: Introducing Inspiration4 civilian astronaut Sian Procter
Dr. Sian Procter [Photo: courtesy of SpaceX]
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If you watched the Super Bowl this year, you may have seen an intriguing ad for SpaceX’s Inspiration4, planned to be the first-ever all-civilian space flight, which began soliciting applications for would-be space explorers during the big game. The flight will put four nonastronauts into low earth orbit on a multiday journey using SpaceX’s Dragon, the reusable spacecraft that has ferried crews to and from the International Space Station. The Inspiration4 program was founded in partnership with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital to raise awareness and money for the children’s cancer research organization and includes four seats that represent Leadership, Hope, Prosperity, and Generosity. After a social media contest and rigorous evaluation process (for which Fast Company editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta served as a judge), Inspiration4 announced today that Sian Procter, PhD, will occupy the Prosperity chair.

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Procter is an accomplished geoscientist and educator, and she’s no stranger to space exploration. She was born on Guam, where her father worked for NASA, and Procter followed in his footsteps: As a geoscientist, she has served as an “analog astronaut” on four NASA research projects, in which scientists live in and conduct research in simulated space environments on earth. Procter is also a certified pilot and was a finalist for NASA’s 2009 astronaut selection program. In addition to her research, Procter has been a geoscience professor at Maricopa Community Colleges for more than 20 years and holds a doctorate in science education. As part of her Inspiration4 application, Procter set up a site, Space2Inspire Art, to share her original space-themed artwork and poems on postcards and to create conversations around what she calls JEDI Space: Just, Equitable, Diverse, and Inclusive.

Fast Company caught up with the scientist, artist, and educator to hear about her journey to become one of the world’s first civilian astronauts, and what she hopes to accomplish on her mission.

So first of all, congratulations. Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up here, becoming a civilian astronaut?

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I feel like I’ve been working my entire life to get to this moment. When I think about my family’s legacy it really plays into the storyline: I was born on Guam—my dad worked at the NASA tracking station there during the Apollo era—so my family was on Guam for the Apollo 11 moon landing. I was actually born eight and a half months after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, so I consider myself to be a moon-celebration baby. After the moon landing, my dad actually got to meet Neil Armstrong, and growing up we had an autograph from Armstrong to my father, thanking him for all the help.

My dad and mom both encouraged me to be an explorer, to pursue math, science, and engineering. As a kid, I really loved aviation and aerospace, and I wanted to be an F-16 pilot. I had dreams of going to the Air Force Academy, and then I got glasses, and in the ’80s you were not fit to be a military aviator if you got glasses. I always saw that as my road to being an astronaut, so I kind of gave up on that dream. My father passed away when I was 19, from lung cancer, and that was also really hard. So I went off and lived my life as an explorer, became a geoscientist and traveled and taught around the world, and got my doctorate. Then I got my pilot’s license, because I always wanted to fly. I did all these things that came naturally.

And then in my late 30s, someone sent me an email that NASA was looking for astronauts, and said I should apply. I applied and ended up being a finalist for the 2009 NASA astronaut selection process. And that really brought aviation and aerospace back into my life.

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From there, I ended up becoming an analog astronaut, which is somebody who engages in research and training around human spaceflight, but they’re not associated with an agency like NASA. I ended up living in four different simulations, which are habitats that simulate the moon or Mars for research, and I investigated food strategies for long-duration space flight. And I pretty much thought that my chances of becoming an astronaut were getting slimmer and slimmer as I get older. I didn’t even apply to the last astronaut selection.

Even though I may not have been particularly chasing becoming an astronaut, I feel like my entire life being an explorer, and a geoscientist, and a teacher, and even as an artist and entrepreneur, has led me to this moment.

[Left to right] Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Procter, and Christopher Sembroski. [Photo: courtesy of SpaceX]
How does it feel to achieve that dream, finally?

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It’s funny, I’m used to the “no” by now. But this time, I like to say it was like when Harry Potter learned that he was a wizard. Like, “Wait, I can’t be a wizard.” In this case, it’s like, “I can’t be a Dragon flyer.” It’s overwhelming—it’s amazing.

What will training and preparations be like?

The day of training starts right after the announcement. So far it’s been getting medical clearance, making sure that you’re flight ready, and then getting into the training program and making sure you’re in the best shape you can be. We’re going to get things like centrifuge training, so that we can feel what the g-forces are like. We’ll go into jet airplanes [to experience low gravity]—I’m so excited to get into a military fighter jet. And then a lot of it is getting into a SpaceX simulator and going through the training that NASA astronauts go through in order to be ready for the Dragon capsule.

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Something fascinating and exciting about this flight is that it’s all civilians. As a trained scientist, and a pilot, and someone who has lived in simulations, in some ways you have the most experience of anyone in the group. How do you think that will affect your role in the mission?

Each of our crew members brings something unique. But to some extent, I feel like I’m the oldest and the wisest, right? I’m the oldest of the crew members. And I like to say I’m seasoned. I’m seasoned in the sense that I’ve lived in these Mars and moon simulations, so I’ve thought a lot about group cohesion and how you live together in small, tight spaces. But I’m also a teacher and a geoscientist. So when we’re looking at earth from space, I’ll be able to point out features and talk about our planet and why it’s such an amazing place in our solar system. And so I’m happy to bring that perspective, not only to my fellow crew members but all of my students and teachers from around the world.

Part of your role, as the Prosperity seat, is your website Space2Inspire, where you have beautiful artwork you’ve created featuring Black women in space. How do you hope this trip will inspire young women and people of color?

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I’m so excited to be a role model for people of color in general. I think back to watching Apollo-era human space flight and always thinking about “How come I don’t see my dad? There’s no people of color in all of this archive footage.” And then the movie Hidden Figures came out, and you realize, “Oh, this is what the time was like.” By that time my dad was already gone, and I couldn’t have these conversations with my parents. I have the opportunity to go to space now and have conversations about why a Just, Equitable, Diverse, and Inclusive (JEDI) Space is so important. And Inspiration4 is opening the door for that.

What are you most looking forward to on your trip to space? When you imagine yourself up there, what’s the scene playing in your head?

As a geoscientist, there is nothing that I’m looking forward to more than seeing the earth from space. There is nothing more beautiful than our planet. So for me, that’s going to be amazing, to see all the land features and the oceans and our atmosphere. I think about that sense of awe. And then as a space artist, as a poet . . . Contact is my favorite movie. And when Jodie Foster says, “They should have sent a poet,” that moment when she’s just overwhelmed—that’s how I envision my experience to be.

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Tell me a little bit about your art and your poetry. How do you marry your love of science with your art?

For most of my life, I’ve expressed my voice through science, and creating curriculum for my students and engaging ways for them to learn, and doing science communication. For me to now have this other lens open up for myself, where it’s creating artwork, whether it’s collage art or paintings and watercolor, it’s a form of exploration and discovery. Providing my words is giving me a way to express myself that I haven’t explored in most of my life. So it’s really opening up a new chapter for me, and I’m so happy to have the Prosperity seat because to me, you get prosperity through creativity. And when I think about my Space2Inspire message, it really is getting people to unleash their creativity, because if they can, they will prosper through that. When you find your own creative lens and share that with the world, that can lead to all kinds of unimaginable opportunities.

I feel like I’ve been handed the keys to the Chocolate Factory in Willy Wonka. This opportunity to learn, to grow, to share, to create and inspire others. And there’s also this generosity element, with St. Jude and the lifesaving research that happens there. My father passed away from cancer when I was 19. That threw my world upside down, and I was in high school when he got sick. To go through that experience, I can’t even imagine if I was a parent having to go through that with a child.

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Dr. Sian Procter [Photo: courtesy of SpaceX]
I’ve read that you’re going to be doing some experiments while you’re up there. Do you know what you’ll be doing, or what kind of work you’d like to do?

I don’t have the details of the larger experiments, but for me personally, I have some goals, and one is to represent the teacher in space. So how can I bring a lesson that will help me inspire students around the world? Particularly my students at the community college. I love being a community college professor. I think it’s the hidden gem of education because we are literally open-access. I’ve had the 16-year-old next to the 70-year-old in my class. And we have to be able to speak to and reach and inspire both of them, wherever they are in their learning. There’s no other education system that has to do that.

And then my other goal is to create art in space, art and poetry. And I want to do some watercolor and paint and write and take photos of our planet.

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Will you be able to use watercolors in low gravity?

I’m super excited to see. Now they have these pens that get filled with water that goes out onto the brush. So I think it’s going to be fun to see how it works, and to share that with students and artists and people around the world, to see how it turns out. It’s an experiment, too. And that’s why I love science, too, because science is in everything. And so I look forward to being able to talk about the science in the art that I’ll be doing.

What do you think this will mean to your community college students and colleagues?

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I think they’re going to be blown away. I’ve always had this motto to lead by example, and that’s one of the things when I go off and do these expeditions, I always bring it back to my students in the classroom, so I can inspire them to go out and be geo explorers. I want to give them the confidence that “yeah, I was just like you, you can go out and do this too.” For them to be able to see me, a community college professor, in space, to see that my hard work and perseverance has paid off, I think they will be inspired to go out and chase their dreams. And I’m looking forward to the world knowing, and presenting this amazing crew.

As a scientist who’s been thinking about this for much of your life, how do you think this trip will change the space industry?

This is a historic moment in human space flight, where four civilians are coming together and representing the pillars of leadership, hope, generosity, and prosperity. This is a new era of space exploration, the commercial side. And we’re really trying to show what you can do when it comes to access to space. Who gets to go is all based on who has access, and when you talk about giving civilians and everyday people access, that is a game changer.

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As a regular person, going to space seems, honestly, pretty scary and intimidating to me. Is there anything you’re worried about?

You know, for me, my greatest fear was that this moment would never manifest for me. I have had these dreams and aspirations my entire life. So now that it has, it’s like, “I did it, I made it. It’s going to happen.” So now, it’s more about excitement. I am an explorer, and I understand risk and risk management, and how we do the best to mitigate those things. When this is the dream you’ve been chasing your whole life, you’re just like, “Strap me in—I’m ready to go.”