The first black female astronaut embodies Women’s History Month
Outer space lay Dr. Sian Proctor has always been in his blood.
It was her fascination throughout her childhood, mostly because her father, Ed, was working on the Apollo 11 mission from a NASA base on Guam, where she was born. His role on the mission that put the first man on the moon resulted in a note from astronaut Neil Armstrong that has always been close to Proctor’s heart.
As a girl she collected war of stars Comics and memorabilia and Indiana Jones Trading cards – items she’s been carting around for decades without knowing why.
Forty years later she found out.
She stuffed them in her SpaceX holdall and took them into space with her, along with artwork and poetry from her students and a Christa McAuliffe silver dollar commemorating the first teacher in space, who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986 . Also on board was the precious autograph of the pioneering moonwalker Armstrong.
Proctor, a Tempe educator, flew into space last September aboard SpaceX’s first all-civilian space mission, Inspiration 4.
“Being immersed in earthlight is a big part of why you transform in space,” she said. “This light is a thousand times brighter and more beautiful than the moon. You are just blinded.”
March is Women’s History Month, and Proctor is the embodiment of observance. Not only did she make history as a member of the first all-civilian private mission into space, but also as the first black woman to step into space and the first to pilot a spacecraft.
“It was like being called to the Olympic team,” said Proctor, who turns 52 this month. “I was selected but now I had to prepare to go out and win the gold medal.”
There was a learning curve, and she faced it like a Jedi Knight.
Understand that Proctor does not shy away from risk and adventure. She is a Civil Air Patrol major, a certified diver, bungee jumper, and former captain of the Arizona State University women’s ice hockey team.
How she managed to get strapped into the seat of a space capsule reflects her spirited side.
In 2009, Proctor was a finalist for NASA’s astronaut class. She was not chosen.
She wasn’t done yet. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, a master’s degree in geology, and a doctorate in science education, she trained as an analog astronaut, conducting spaceflight simulations on Earth. Proctor has completed four missions.
Last spring, she entered a SpaceX commercial spaceflight competition and wrote and recited a poem for a Twitter video. In it, she spoke about her life motto, Space2inspire, which she defines as “using my unique space to inspire those within my reach and beyond.”
And she spoke about her mission to create a JEDI space — just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive — for all of humanity.
“When I talk about JEDI space, it’s not about space,” Proctor said. “It’s about the space you inhabit. It’s about how you can make better use of that space, and it depends on what you say, what you do, what you intend. If we all made our space a JEDI space, imagine what the world would be like.”
The video garnered 70,000 likes.
She won the competition. Her lifelong dream finally came true: she flew into space.
“As a seasoned black woman, it meant the world to me,” she said.
Your selection will be recorded in the Netflix series, Countdown: Inspiration4 mission to space.
“I aspire to that JEDI space that I talked about in my poem and it was such an honor to be able to represent black women,” she said.
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Looking ahead to the September 15 launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the geology professor/watercolor artist/poet focused on staying fit, avoiding COVID-19, memorizing the Dragon spacecraft manual, and sharpening her wits as a systems engineer train.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking because I had to learn how to think, speak and act like an engineer. But I’m a geologist,” said Proctor, who taught geology and planetary science at South Mountain Community College for 20 years.
In the week before launch, Proctor and her three crew members received callsigns. Her name was “Leo” – after Leonardo da Vinci, who like Proctor was a painter, scientist and engineer.
Each crew member received a final phone call. Proctor wanted to speak to former First Lady Michelle Obama. SpaceX made it possible.
Proctor says what she took away from the conversation was “what it means to be a first . . . to be able to navigate it all and do it with such grace and style.”
“I loved her book Will. This (mission) was mine Will Moment.”
Finally it was start day. Proctor had prepared her whole life for this moment.
“My father would be so proud,” she said. “He’d probably also say, ‘Look, I told you you can do anything, you just have to work hard.'”
There was also trepidation. Eventually, the spacecraft would orbit Earth at 17,000 miles per hour every 90 minutes for three days.
“But for me as an explorer, if I had died, it would be the ultimate, what I love most,” she said. “And I can’t think of a better way.”
The Inspiration 4’s ignition was “fantastic,” she said, and after a little banging, the crew got to work. They performed exams and measured their bladders, arteries and even eyeballs with handheld ultrasound machines. And they spoke to young patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, for which the mission reportedly raised about $200 million.
Proctor also taught one art lesson which was beamed back to Earth using zero gravity capable colored pencils and watercolors to create a beautiful rendition of the dragon above Earth. She called the picture “AfroGaia”.
Crew members slept in sleeping bags strapped to their seats to counteract the cabin’s weightlessness and ate like they were on a camping trip: cold pizza, BLT sandwiches and floating M&Ms.
There was a minor emergency: a fire alarm sounded due to a malfunction of the exhaust fan. There was no fire, and the crew quickly diagnosed and fixed the problem, she said.
The culmination of Proctor’s three amazing days in space was her first glimpse of Earth from the Dragon’s Dome. A full moon, about which there are many love songs and werewolf lore, pales in comparison to a view of the blue planet, she said.
Proctor was also thrilled to talk to her favorite musician Bono from U2 during the mission. He later sent her a message along with the album welcoming her to Earth. The space between us by Scottish composer Craig Armstrong.
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A trip to space is life-changing, says Proctor, who now directs the Global Futures Institute on ASU’s Tempe campus and is an astronaut ambassador for the Maricopa County Community College District.
“The ‘I4’ mission has given me access to people and opportunities that I didn’t have before,” she said. “I now have a larger global platform to share my motto and mission.”
As Black History Month drew to a close in February, Proctor published her book, Space2inspire: The art of inspiration. She is artist-in-residence at Subtractive, an art show in Los Angeles, and her space art is available for purchase at Doctor Proctor’s space2inspire.
She co-organized an analog astronaut conference at the University of Arizona Biosphere 2 this spring and, along with her crew, will receive the Space Inspiration Award from Orlando-based Space for a Better World during an Apollo 16 50th Anniversary Gala.
What’s next for Dr. Sian Proctor? As a board member of Astronomers Without Borders, she is passionate about outreach in astronomy.
“Looking at the night sky connects us all,” she said.
In addition, exploring the oceans sounds fascinating.
“I think I’ll be an aquanaut,” she said.