Dr. Sian Proctor tells us how we can all help get more women and more people of color into space, one way or another. Want to send us feedback? Tweet us, email us, or leave us a voice message!
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And my name is Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: This is Episode 42: The Meaning of Life.
Quinn: That's right. Hey, Brian, question. What happens when you're almost an astronaut?
Brian: And what comes next?
Quinn: Yeah. I didn't have any idea, now I do and I'm fucking inspired about it. Man, our guest today is Dr. Sian Proctor. She is an African-American explorer. Yeah, put that on your resume.
Brian: Geo explorer. Love it.
Quinn: Scientist, STEM communicator and almost an astronaut. We're going to dig into that. She has lived in training habitats across the world. You're welcome, America. She has been on TV, and today, she is with us on the mic explaining how we can get more women and more people of color into space one way or another because it turns out astronaut is not the only way.
Brian: No, you don't have to be only a military jet pilot anymore.
Quinn: Right. The Right Stuff was great. Thanks. However, let's open this bitch up.
Brian: Yeah, pretty awesome. This was super fun and just very like inspirational.
Brian: It makes you want to like never give up on your dreams.
Quinn: Right, ever again. It's basically like watching The Last Showman over and over and over.
Brian: Right, right, which I of course have definitely watched and listened to the soundtrack of.
Quinn: Perfect. All right. Let's go to Dr. Proctor.
Brian: Let's do it.
Quinn: Our guest today is Dr. Sian Proctor and together we're going to discuss the topic, "What Happens When You're Almost An Astronaut And What Comes Next?" Dr. Proctor, welcome.
Dr. Proctor: Thank you for having me.
Brian: We are thrilled to have you here. Let us just get going with a quick who are you and what do you do.
Dr. Proctor: I am Dr. Sian Proctor. I am a geoscience professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. I teach geology classes, planetary science classes and sustainability classes. I've been a full-time professor for 19 years.
Quinn: That's impressive.
Brian: Same as me.
Quinn: No, not the same of you, Brian.
Brian: Same as me, oh.
Quinn: Once again, he always rises.
Brian: Not even close.
Quinn: Not even close, champ.
Brian: Awesome. Can I ask? Maybe we'll get into this, but what does it mean to be an almost astronaut?
Quinn: Yeah, we're ... That's the point, we're going to get into that, Brian.
Brian: We're going to get into it. Got it, got it. Oh, I'm very excited!
Quinn: Hold your pants, man.
Brian: Got it, got it. Cool! We're welcome. We're very happy to have you like what we said. We're going to get our conversation going. What we like to do here, Doctor, is we number one realize that everything is screwed and we need to help fix it and we bring people like you on board to tell all of our listeners specific things that they and we can do to make a dent in the universe, so we'll set up some context and then figure out specifically what, who, why, if we can help.
Quinn: Big fans of action-oriented questions here.
Dr. Proctor: Sounds great!
Quinn: Yeah. Doctor, we do start with one important question. Instead of saying, Doctor, tell us your whole life story as rich as I'm sure that is, we like to pivot a little bit and ask, Doctor, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Dr. Proctor: Well, I am vital to the survival of the species because I care.
Quinn: Oh, I like it.
Dr. Proctor: I take the time to be engaged with my world around me, and basically, I call myself a geo explorer. That means that I go out and I explore our world from a science or geoscience perspective and I look for ways in which I can communicate the things that are happening around our world to the next generation and inspire them to become aware and involved, so I'm a science communicator.
Quinn: I love that. You're sort of Captain Planet more or less.
Dr. Proctor: Pretty much.
Brian: You're the actual Captain Planet.
Quinn: Actual Captain Planet. Doctor, well, we appreciate that perspective and having people that care is obviously pretty vital. All right, we're just going to set up a little context for today. Please by all means jump in, correct us, whatever.
Dr. Proctor: Oh, I will.
Quinn: Run away.
Brian: Yeah. Oh, I like that.
Quinn: That's perfect. Thank you. That works best for us. Again, we're trying to stand in for our audience who's on the subway or riding a bike or fucking texting and driving or something like that, so they don't have the chance to Google all these things or dig in, so this is our chance to make sure we're all on the same page for what we really dig in today. I'm going to talk a little bit about how someone gets picked to be an astronaut.
Brian: Oh, my god! I'm excited!
Quinn: Nope, Brian, don't just -
Brian: I'm just excited! Yup.
Quinn: Yup. Here's how we pick the first ones, right? Also, I saw First Man recently.
Dr. Proctor: Was it good?
Quinn: I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. Yeah. I mean they chose, don't spoil anything, I mean I don't think most people really know his life story that well which is the point of making a movie that was based on the book which is like, "Boy, that guy went through some shit," and also it turns out science and space is really hard.
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Quinn: Really hard. It's one thing to watch Apollo 13 which is also so important and to understand, but to get to where they got to in Apollo 13, it was crazy. I thought they took a really interesting perspective with the way they told it which was like it was a hell of a thing to even get to that place.
Dr. Proctor: Yeah. I'm looking forward to seeing it, but what I want to say is now that you're bringing up Neil Armstrong, that's where it all began for me. I was born on Guam because my father worked for a NASA contractor during the Apollo missions and I literally grew up with Neil Armstrong's autograph to my father on his office wall as a kid and all these other Apollo certificates.
Brian: Oh, my god!
Dr. Proctor: So, my father was a hidden figure.
Quinn: Hold on.
Brian: Insane. This is insane.
Quinn: All right, we're going to need a little more detail.
Quinn: Before we even do the whole context bullshit, let's talk a little bit about what we're you doing … No, we're just going to do the whole tell us your life story thing I guess.
Quinn: What were you guys doing in Guam? What did your parents do? I don't want to leave your mom out of this and what was that life? I want to hear. This is fascinating.
Dr. Proctor: My father was really smart but wasn't able to go to college. He basically took a test, a math test, when he was 18 and they thought he cheated on it because he scored perfect on it and this was kind of equivalent to like an SAT Math Test, and so long story short, he was in Ohio. They figured out that he was actually really smart and the next thing you know he's working for the Federal Government doing ICBM work, tracking. This would have been -
Quinn: What year was that?
Dr. Proctor: Let me think about this. This would have been early '60s. I have a picture of my father on the US Vandenberg that got sunk off of the coast of Florida that created an artificial reef that's dated 1966. They used that to go off the coast of Russia to track ICBM missiles.
Brian: What's ICBM?
Dr. Proctor: ICBM, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
Brian: Ballistic Missiles, got it.
Dr. Proctor: ICBM and so he was doing really interesting top secret kind of work and as a young person in his 20s and an African-American male -
Dr. Proctor: And then he was able to transitioning, he went to work for Bendix Corporation and they had a contract with NASA. We started off in a Gemini Program in Cape Canaveral and then ended up going up to Guam from 1966 to 1970. So for four years, my mom who's a housewife with four kids, not four kids at that time. Me and my brother were born on Guam but taking care of us while my father was working at the tracking station on Guam for the Apollo missions.
Brian: That's really wild.
Quinn: That's really -
Brian: Like you're a kid and your dad like works for … I can't imagine a better -
Quinn: Right, in those early days -
Quinn: That's just incredible.
Dr. Proctor: Right, I know. Unfortunately, my father left right after I think it was Apollo 13. He went and left and went to work for Raytheon and I was only 2 months old, had just been born on Guam and they left beautiful tropical Guam for snowy wintery Minnesota and my life in snow began and -
Quinn: For sure.
Brian: Sounds familiar.
Dr. Proctor: Yeah, it was really interesting because he transitioned into computers and more into the computer technology world after that, but I grew up again with all of these amazing space certificates and I actually have them now in my space room at my house.
Quinn: Of course, you have a space room.
Brian: Who doesn't have a space room?
Dr. Proctor: Everybody needs an "I need space room."
Brian: That's incredible.
Quinn: That is really special. Wow! That just must have been such a fascinating … It starts to the career that you chose and moving into the science communication.
Dr. Proctor: It really was because growing up I naturally gravitated to science. My father was a big advocate and my mother of us going to college because neither of them did, getting degrees and my father was basically, "Choose a science. You're going to become a scientist," and luckily, I was already kind of attuned to that, but funny enough, I did want to be an astronaut when I was a kid, but more importantly I wanted to be a military aviator. I grew up looking up at the sky for a military aircraft. I love watching the TV show Baa Baa Black Sheep. I built model airplanes. I was a total military aviation junkie, and of course, Top Gun came out when I was a teenager.
Brian: Just go on.
Dr. Proctor: I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, fly the F16, then transition to the astronaut core and become the shuttle commander and then I got glasses about 15 and I was even in the Civil Air Patrol. I mean I was totally military.
Dr. Proctor: And then I got glasses and I knew I wasn't going to be a military aviator at that time because back in the '80s that was just not going to happen and it's funny because I also didn't think as a female and a minority female, even though I never saw a single female or minority female pilot, it never occurred to me that there weren't any and that I couldn't do that.
Dr. Proctor: And my father never ever discouraged me.
Brian: That's amazing.
Dr. Proctor: Like he took me the model shop to buy the airplanes and he drove me to Civil Air Patrol so I could go to the meetings every week and bought me binoculars so I can watch planes fly by and so both my parents were very encouraging of me just exploring that, but once I got glasses and the military was out to me so was being an astronaut because I always thought from the military aviation side and not as a mission specialist.
Quinn: Fascinating! Well, now it turns out that you don't have to just go pilot.
Brian: Right, right.
Quinn: And I assume that will keep expanding. All right, that is just an incredible perspective to have and I'm excited about the rest of this conversation.
Brian: Having such big dreams right off the bat, that's incredible.
Quinn: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Proctor: And just not even thinking that they weren't achievable and that's why I find it fascinating because in my mind -
Quinn: That's a hell of a testament to your parents.
Dr. Proctor: Right. I always thought like the mission specialists were rocket scientists. They went to MIT and Harvard. I wasn't going to be going there, but I never doubted that I could get into the Air Force Academy, fly an F16 and become the shuttle commander. I think it's funny as a kid that that's what I thought I would be doing.
Quinn: Yeah, that's amazing and especially with no visible role models like you.
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Brian: [crosstalk 00:12:42]
Quinn: It's funny. I mean it's one thing. Any kid can grow up and want to be a pilot or want to be in a space shuttle, but to have such an intermittent daily interaction with the agency itself and with the machinations of it and to still not so those of course because it was the '60s, not that it's hugely better now, but it's still even then is really inspiring. That's awesome. I mean that's incredible because we talked about the First Man stuff like you said with the way that timing lined up, it is really good take and The Gemini, The Mercury, especially the Apollo years.
Quinn: They started picking the first astronauts in '59, right? They had to have that flight experience and jet aircraft background and engineering. They had to have great eyesight. They had to be shorter than 5 feet 11, so they can fit in The Mercury.
Brian: I couldn't go.
Quinn: Yup, Brian, you're out for so many reasons.
Brian: So many reasons.
Quinn: And at least at that time and for a long time you had to be a white guy.
Dr. Proctor: Yup, it was pretty standardized.
Quinn: Yeah, shocking. Here is NASA's existing astronaut admission protocol per their website. Astronaut requirements have changed NASA's goals admission. A pilot's license and engineering experience is still one route a person could take to becoming an astronaut, but it's no longer the only one. Today, to be considered to be for an astronaut position, US Citizens must meet the following qualifications: Bachelor's degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics. Number two, at least three years of related professional experience obtained after a degree completion or at least 1,000 hours pilot in command time on jet aircraft. Number three, the ability to pass the NASA long duration astronaut physical. Distant and near visual acuity must be correctable -
Quinn: To 20/20 for each eye. The use of glasses is acceptable.
Brian: This is wild!
Quinn: Twenty-five years too late.
Dr. Proctor: Well, I will say that NASA has always kind of been progressive in the glasses area. It was the military that took a while.
Quinn: Oh, yeah. Okay.
Dr. Proctor: So if you're going to be a military aviator, then you needed to have good eyesight, but now even the military, well, they correct it.
Brian: With these sort of updated like requirements, there's actually a lot of people that are probably eligible.
Dr. Proctor: Absolutely and that's why every time NASA puts out a call for astronauts, it used to be a couple of thousand people. Now, you're getting up to 18,000 people applying.
Dr. Proctor: I think that was number for the last call.
Quinn: Right. It's interesting actually [inaudible 00:15:15]. It's said there was 8,000 in 1978 applications. It went down to 6,100 in 2012, then in 2016, the last number I find, yes, it was 18,000 which is interesting. From I remember seeing this, that was shortly after The Martian came out.
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Brian: The movie?
Quinn: Yeah. I think they said that was actually a big boost which is awesome.
Dr. Proctor: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)
Quinn: Basically, there is a board in NASA. They take those applications. They assess each candidate's qualifications. Now, there's a bit of a waterfall. The board then invites about 120 of the most highly qualified candidates to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for interviews. From my math, that's about 0.006%-ish.
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Quinn: To be clear, I'm not an astronaut. I don't have any of those degrees. I'm a liberal arts major. I can ask philosophical questions about those numbers. Of those interviewed, about half are invited back for second round, so 60 or so.
Brian: And now it's 60.
Quinn: And then once the final ones are selected, they have to complete a two-year training period at Starfleet Academy.
Dr. Proctor: Yeah, basically.
Dr. Proctor: In the nutshell.
Quinn: Oh, my god! Wouldn't that be amazing?
Dr. Proctor: Yeah, well, I was going to say what's interesting from my story is that I kind of gave up on that dream at 16, not even knowing what the astronaut selection process was or the criteria, never even looked it up because I was no longer to going to be a military aviator, so it didn't matter in my brain and so I just went off and lived my life. I got my degrees and I've been a geo explorer. I got a pilot's license because I always wanted to learn how to fly. I got scuba certified. I traveled and taught around the world, and then one day in my late 30s so literally like 25 years later, a friend sends me an email that says, "NASA is looking for astronaut. You should apply."
Quinn: What an email to get!
Dr. Proctor: That's how I found out -
Brian: We just had another guest who had a situation like that and basically was like, "No, I mean this would cool but whatever," and then randomly gets like a card from a friend like, "Oh, no. You should apply to work at NASA."
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Dr. Proctor: And it's funny that they thought of me.
Dr. Proctor: But I think because of who I am and my personality and my lifestyle and the things that I was projecting, that's one of the reasons why they said, "Hey," when they saw the astronaut selection notice, I popped into the head, and luckily for me, they forwarded it on to me.
Brian: That's so great!
Quinn: Okay. What was this process like?
Dr. Proctor: Well, when I first got the email, I pretty much kind of laugh out loud because -
Dr. Proctor: I'm like, but then I applied because I looked at the requirements. I didn't even know that it was basically … They post it on USAJOBS, like -
Dr. Proctor: The dot-gov jobs for the Federal Government, so it's a job that you apply for.
Brian: Wanted: Astronauts.
Dr. Proctor: Right and so I filled out the forms and I sent it in thinking, "Yeah, you know, I've got a lot of the qualifications," but realistically, I was thinking, "The chances of them selecting me are going to be slim to none, but I'm glad I applied," and then I found out that I made the 450 and then the 110 and that was a real shocker when they were like, "Yeah, we'd like to invite you down to Johnson Space Center for three days and we're going to have you interview and meet other candidates and astronauts," and I was like, "Okay." The biggest form of impostor syndrome exploded for me, of course.
Quinn: Oh, god! I can't even imagine. I can't even imagine. I mean talk about an emperor has no clothes feeling.
Dr. Proctor: Right, yeah.
Quinn: Could you just back up and tell us really quick what each of those moments like making each of those cuts? What were you doing? What that felt like because that has just to be incredible?
Dr. Proctor: Well, it's a like childhood dream is being revisited, right? Because you'd given up on this and not even thought about it for a such a long time and then suddenly you're getting a Class II Flight Medical because NASA determined you're on the top 450 and they wanted to get your preliminary screening done and then you sent that in and then literally I was walking across campus when my boss at the time stops me and she says, "Hey, there's somebody from NASA who has been calling about you and his name is Melvin Leland or Leland Melvin," and I literally said, "You mean, Leland Melvin, the astronaut? And she said, "Oh, I better get back to him then."
Brian: Oh, my god.
Dr. Proctor: That's basically when I found out that they were seriously considering me for an interview and I thought to myself, "One, what? An astronaut is calling about me? Wait a second."
Brian: Holy cow!
Dr. Proctor: It was really cool but surreal at the same time because again I think a lot of women of color suffer from impostor syndrome especially when you're the first.
Dr. Proctor: And your role models are limited and being a community college professor in South Phoenix, again in my mind I'm thinking the non-pilot astronauts are all these amazing people who are truly rocket scientist.
Dr. Proctor: I really had to work my way through and not have really fun conversations with the voice inside my head about why I belonged and how awesome and cool this was that I was going to Johnson Space Center.
Quinn: Okay, talk to us about the flight down to Johnson Space Center and your experience.
Brian: Oh, my god! [crosstalk 00:21:17] exploding over the excitement.
Dr. Proctor: You are exploding but also the butterflies in your stomach because you have no idea.
Brian: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Proctor: It's The Right Stuff kind of thing. It's the top of the top and you land and they bring you in groups of 10 and you know the first thing people ask you in any high-power group is what you do.
Brian: All right, of course.
Dr. Proctor: And there were the fighter pilots and there were the doctors and there were the well Harvard, MIT professors and then they asked you and you say, "Well, I'm a community college professor in Phoenix, Arizona," and I think people have this perception of, "Well, community college, what exactly does that mean because you're not K-12 or high school," and I think people understood that NASA had a teacher in Space Program and that they had taken some teachers, but I think that they also were kind of like, "Community college, huh? So, you're not at the university. What is that and how did you end up here if you're community college?"
Dr. Proctor: I got to hand it to NASA and I think Leland Melvin, the astronaut, because he was very big into education for recognizing that the community college is a vital source for educating our citizens in the United States and that the faculty and staff and the students from the community college are amazing and that you can have people that are at the community college doing amazing things.
Quinn: Oh, god! I mean that just must have been incredible and at the same time like you said the impostor syndrome just from that, having thought about that, and also you're a woman of color -
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Quinn: I mean, what was the process then and sort of how everything ended up there? Can you tell us how that worked through?
Dr. Proctor: Yeah, so I showed up and again, we're in groups of generally 10 but we had 11. Another person was added in and then you go for either Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and so you had one group of 10 at the beginning of the week and the other group of 10 at the end of the week and you cross [inaudible 00:23:39] on Wednesday. At one time, there's anywhere from 18 to 21 of you in this kind of cohort that NASA is wooing and they have social events where astronauts come and get to kind of talk to them on that Wednesday.
Dr. Proctor: The most intimidating part is going in for the interview of course because it's not a one-on-one interview. It's you and basically the NASA Selection Committee which is I think it was definitely over 10 people. It was a nice big -
Brian: Not intimidating at all?
Dr. Proctor: Conference table and you kind of sit in there and you're like, "Okay, who's who?" and you're just so nervous going into that interview, but you're also excited, and for me, I think part of the thing with having the impostor syndrome is you can't believe that you're there anyway so you're just going to enjoy it until they kick you out. And so you're just like, "Well, I'm not going to get any further than this, so I might as well enjoy every minute."
Dr. Proctor: I was blogging at the time. I had my own website and I was kind of doing these blogs and I just remember I had gone up to the astronaut area where they had the offices for the astronauts and I'm in the hallway and I did this video where I blogged about, "Hey, I'm up here. This is really great!" Again, science communication.
Dr. Proctor: Just sharing the experience and then I post it online and then I think the next day they called us all in to this meeting room and they said, "There will be no videos taken up in the …" And I'm kind of shrinking in my chair, like up in the astronaut office area. I'm like, "Oh, my bad." They didn't call me up by name but I was like, "Ouch."
Quinn: Well. Right.
Dr. Proctor: To me, it was again about the science communication, enjoying the experience and really kind of thinking when are they sending me home because this is so amazing, do I really belong and kind of battling with that.
Dr. Proctor: And then you actually do go home and the funny thing is you go home and you wait. You wait to find out if you're going to be one of the finalists. Are they going to call you back? This is a really long process. I mean I put in my application. They would do July of 2008. I think I found out that I was highly qualified probably around August, I want to say, of 2008. I knew I was interviewing I want to say in November, no December probably is when I figured out I was going into the 110 because I remember going away for a Christmas break and thinking I can't injure myself because I have my -
Quinn: You're going to be an astronaut.
Dr. Proctor: I was literally backpacking through Central America and I remember going white water rafting and I kind of tweaked my knee and I thought, "Oh, no! This is it. I'm not going to be able to go and become an astronaut if I messed myself up," and so then I had my interview for the 110. I want to say it was in the end of January and then I went home and I waited and it's funny because you start hearing that NASA is picking, slots are filling up and soon it's getting to the point where they're not going to have any more slots left and then your phone rings one day and it's so funny because I remember like it was yesterday because it was early morning and my mom is the only one who calls me early in the morning. I thought it was her -
Brian: So you expected it to be her.
Dr. Proctor: Right and I answered the phone and they say, "This is NASA Johnson Space Center," and I just remember going, "Oh, my god! Oh, my god! Are you sure?" and she's like, "Yes," and inviting me to come back for a full week to Johnson Space Center because I was now going to be a finalist. Again, I couldn't believe -
Brian: When was that? When did you get back?
Dr. Proctor: Oh, boy.
Brian: Because you're waiting since January.
Dr. Proctor: It was around my birthday and it was funny I'm turning 39 and then I went in April so it was really close to the end of March.
Brian: Yeah, a couple of months of waiting. Every time the phone rings thinking maybe, maybe.
Quinn: I just keep stepping back to you giving up this dream at 16 and saying if you could have told your 16-year-old self, "Hey, around your 39th birthday, you're going to pass four threshold at NASA and they're inviting you not just down but back."
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Quinn: By the way, you're not pilot.
Dr. Proctor: Nope.
Quinn: What, god, the conversation the two of you could have had. Please continue.
Dr. Proctor: I want to say that and what I would've told myself is just live your life because you're doing okay. I think that's the thing a lot of people … I did not live my life to be an astronaut and yet I got down to the less than 1% in the selection process and I think that that's an important message for kids aspiring to go to space to understand is that be true to yourself, be yourself, go out and explore, have your adventures and stuff and be happy in what you're doing because that's what NASA is really looking for, is well-rounded individuals that are smart and scientists but also well-rounded and doing their thing.
Dr. Proctor: I went home. I mean I went for a full week and there were seven of us total that they brought in and one of them was another teacher which was great because she was a high school teacher and so it was me, her, a couple of fighter pilots, medical doctor and a scientist I think out of MIT and the seven of us came together for a week and we just had an amazing bonding experience. We were the last seven of the 47 selected finalists. We were the last ones called in and so we are the ones who we didn't think we were going to get the call. We were basically, "Oh, NASA has selected all their finalists. We're not going to get selected and then the phone rings and we're like, "What? Okay, we'll be there."
Dr. Proctor: And you're there for a week and you're just bonding together as you go through all the medical tests because now you're not only to have an interview again and all of that but the big thing is the medical because you can be medically disqualified if they find something wrong with you and you don't know. I mean they literally test every inch of your body to find whatever could possibly knock you out. They are trying to eliminate you for some weird thing that you might have hidden in your genes that you don't even know.
Quinn: Right, right. Lots of people go to the doctor but not like this.
Dr. Proctor: No, definitely not like this, right? The brain scan, the needle drawing the blood, the body scan, just everything. I had multiple eye exams because I had had my LASIK in my 30s and so that was fun to hear them. The lady said, "Whoever did your LASIK did a fantastic job." I'm like, "It was worth every penny. I paid for that fantastic job." And then just again talking to astronauts and really figuring out that if they do choose you is this a job you really want to do.
Dr. Proctor: And I felt very fortunate because I got to speak to female astronauts. I got to speak to a Black female astronaut. I got to really get into what would it be like to have this job and then you go home and you wait again.
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Quinn: You are in a group of seven and it was 47 folks total you said.
Dr. Proctor: Forty-seven finalists.
Quinn: And then how many were they picking?
Dr. Proctor: Well, we didn't know and that was the thing and so there was rumor -
Quinn: But they're not picking 47.
Dr. Proctor: And there was rumor that they were going to pick anywhere from nine to maybe 15 and keep in mind that this is the first astronaut selection class that they specifically advertised for the ISS, the International Space Station only and not the shuttle because they knew the shuttle was going to be retired, the shuttle program, and that anybody selected in this round would not fly on the shuttle. There was a lot of question about how many astronauts will they actually need.
Dr. Proctor: With the shuttle retiring, the shuttle was a real workforce. I mean they were sending the shuttles up all the time and they were picking astronaut classes anywhere. Some of them were up to 47 I think in the '90s, but when you're talking about the International Space Station, you're talking about a few limited spots for Americans, and if the people going up are staying up there for six months or a year, then the rotation becomes a lot longer.
Dr. Proctor: And so we didn't know and you didn't know until the chose, and one day, for me, this would have been July I believe, so it was a full year. I was at Goddard Space Flight Center doing a summer kind of visiting professor internship when my phone rang and actually I should say text started coming out because we were the final seven we thought that at least one of us would get selected and what was interesting is the rumor was that if a male called you it was going to be a no, but if a female called then it was a yes because -
Quinn: How did that really start?
Dr. Proctor: Well, just because Peggy was the head of the astronaut selection core at that time and so she was going to be the one who is going to call all the yeses.
Brian: Delivering all the good news.
Dr. Proctor: Yeah. Peggy Whitson who is a very famous female astronaut and so she was the head and so people just kind of speculated that she would call with the yeses and that Dwayne, I can't remember Dwayne's last name, but he was the head of the astronaut selection office and that he would call and then give you the noes. It was really interesting because out of the seven we were really close, so the text started coming in and it was basically, "NASA is calling today. Mine was a no," and then the next person, "Mine was a no," and then the next person, "Mine was a no." and it just kind of went through that whole day of my friends saying how they weren't selected and then me just waiting for that phone to ring and it rang, and first of all, it was a female voice.
Brian: Right off the bat, you're like, "Oh, baby."
Dr. Proctor: I know, so imagine the first thing, I'm like, "Hello," and it's a female voice and saying, "Hi, is this Sian Proctor?" and I was like, "Ahhh," and then she said, "This is Sunita Williams and I just want to say that I'm sorry but you were not selected," and then the breath kind of goes out of you and you're like, "Oooo-okay."
Dr. Proctor: It was heartbreaking at the time because even though I had impostor syndrome and I didn't, I was like, "Will they select me? Will they not select me?" It was my childhood dream within my grasp, and at that moment, hearing that no, feeling it to slip away and this whole idea of going from ordinary to extraordinary and pretty much a phone call, right?
Dr. Proctor: And so I remember just getting that phone call and just breaking down and it's funny because my best friend happened to be in DC also. She was doing an internship at the National Institute of Health and so I called her and she immediately came over and got me at Goddard and just kind of helped me work through this whole idea of not being selected.
Dr. Proctor: The talk of this podcast is "What's next when you're not selected?" It's a really interesting growing transition that you kind of go through, and as hard as it was, it helped me be a better person, the experience I had going through the selection process. It helped me recognize impostor syndrome. It helped kind of go through these conversations in my head to make me better, stronger, more resilient. Right after getting the no, I basically told myself that the reason why was because I needed to be better. I wasn't the best I could be. I enrolled into a master's program in space studies.
Dr. Proctor: I was going to go and get my advanced scuba. I was going to get my commercial pilot's license. For months afterwards, I was riddled with this anxiety about making myself better so that the next time I would be ready for NASA. I had to stop myself and say, "This is crazy." I needed to celebrate the fact that I just made it to the top 1% of the NASA Astronaut Selection Process and that I was actually qualified and that the reason why they selected me could have been any kind of reason from crew cohesion or what they needed to … Who knows? But that I was good and -
Brian: And you belonged in that group.
Dr. Proctor: And I belonged in that group and that I am doing things and I am having this amazing life and that I didn't need to turn upside down to fit this idea of what I thought an astronaut needed to be in order to be selected and it's funny because so I just dropped all of that and what was next? I went on a reality TV show.
Brian: All right.
Dr. Proctor: Right. And so that's what I did. In 2009, I was almost an astronaut, and in 2010, I was on an apocalyptic-build show called The Colony on The Discovery Channel.
Quinn: I definitely watched The Colony.
Brian: I remember that.
Dr. Proctor: Right, I was in Season 2 which was in New Orleans.
Dr. Proctor: Where we spent two months shooting and it was a complete opposite change and it was good for me to get kind of or have this completely opposite experience and move forward.
Quinn: Sure, yeah. Wow! That is an incredible story.
Brian: Life is full of crazy experiences.
Dr. Proctor: It really is.
Quinn: Thank you for sharing that.
Dr. Proctor: And how that defines you.
Quinn: I guess I'm curious, did you ever feel, have you thought in the year since that either positively to advancing through that process or negatively in not being chosen that your gender and/or race played into it in any way?
Dr. Proctor: You know, that's interesting. Okay, out of the 47, there were two Black females and NASA did not have a lot left in the astronaut course, so there was a lot of speculation that one of us was going to be selected, so I felt like I had a 50-50 shot and indeed one was selected and so in complete rock star, so I felt like I had maybe an even better chance than some of the other females because there wasn't a large number of women of color to choose from and that's where I would love to see those numbers change, is that we get more women of color affined to be astronauts that they don't let impostor syndrome or will they select me kind of hinder that.
Dr. Proctor: I love the fact that we're getting more equal in gender. When you look at the selection process, 50-50 almost, male to female and that we're not so heavy on the military side. In 2009, they chose nine of the 47, so it was a really low selection number.
Dr. Proctor: And I can't remember off the top of my head but a large percentage of them were military and I think that NASA is definitely diversifying but I'd like to see that more. I'd like to see it where, let's say, they choose 10 people and my goodness, three of them are women of color instead of one.
Dr. Proctor: And that whole idea of it being that whoever is the best out of the selection pool but also keeping in mind that diversity is important and -
Quinn: Yes, I was just going say and not just for representation. I mean but purely for the particular issue that women face in space than men don't.
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Quinn: And we are only starting to grasp the things that we don't know at this point. I mean you talk about the longer trips going out to Mars and further one day, I mean we have so much that we don't know and you're not going to know unless you put women in space.
Dr. Proctor: And you diversify the people that are involved in both the selection and going so that you just kind of get all of these voices and this whole idea that space is for everyone and I think that we don't have that yet, but it's something to strive for that where everybody around the world really believes that space is for everyone.
Dr. Proctor: Since then, I've been fortunate because I've been able to still continue my passion for space and space exploration because I've become an analog astronaut.
Brian: Yeah, I just -
Quinn: Yeah, so Brian wants to know what analog astronaut is. I just didn't tell him.
Dr. Proctor: Yeah.
Brian: Purposely and I'm very interested.
Dr. Proctor: I have really fun friends because they recommend me for all kinds of things. I got a Facebook post one day that said, "You know, you love food and you love space. NASA is looking for people to live in this bubble in Hawaii and you should apply."
Dr. Proctor: It was call to participate in this program called HI-SEAS which was a new analog site. An analog site is a place that is Moon-like or Mars-like in its terrain and people can go -
Brian: Naturally or it's made that way?
Dr. Proctor: Naturally.
Dr. Proctor: That's an analog site, but an analog mission is any place. It can be any place that's set up where you have people who are researching and advancing human space flight. There's an analog site at Johnson Space Center where they basically lock you in to a simulation for a certain amount of time, but then there are these analog sites that are out around the world that have characteristics or terrains that are Mars- or Moon-like, so I mean Antarctica can be considered analog site because of the harsh environment and the weather being cold and things like that and a big island of Hawaii being volcanically active, there's a lot of locations where you just don't have vegetation and it's volcanic, so it's Mars-like.
Dr. Proctor: This was a new analog site on the big island of Hawaii at 8,000 feet on the slopes of Mauna Loa and they were looking for six people to go live in this simulation for four months and it was specifically to research food strategies for long duration space flight and so this whole idea that -
Brian: That's so cool.
Dr. Proctor: Right and so you get to go cook in a Mars simulation.
Dr. Proctor: And the idea is that when we do have people living on Moon or Mars, we're going to have to feed them until they can actually grow food and stuff like that. NASA is really interested in what is the bang for buck if you're going to have astronauts creatively cook and using freeze-dried ingredients such as freeze-dried fruits, meats and vegetables and so we were brought in to investigate that question along with some other things like crew cohesion. How do you pick a good crew so that they don't kill each other on the way to Mars?
Brian: Right, right.
Dr. Proctor: So I went and I lived for four months in the HI-SEAS Habitat. Before we went in to the habitat, we got to go the Mars Desert Research Station for two weeks to kind of work out some of the kinks and then this past summer I spent two weeks in the LunAres Moon Simulation in Pila, Poland.
Dr. Proctor: What's interesting about this analog sites is they're popping up around the world because small nations are realizing that they can get into the space game by creating an analog location and having people live in these simulations to help advance human space flight.
Quinn: Sure. They have something to offer without going to space.
Dr. Proctor: Right. It has opened up a whole new set of what we call astronauts and they are called analog astronauts and it's for people who really want to be engaged in space but you know NASA only calls for astronauts, what every three, four, five years, and the selection, nine, 10, 15 at the most.
Dr. Proctor: Your chances of being able to participate are low and now it's opening up because of all of these analog sites around the world and it's a great time for anybody who's interested in advancing human space flight, lots of opportunities besides being selected for the NASA astronaut core.
Quinn: Right, so that sounds like a perfect moment to ask, considering both NASA, first of all you don't have to be a pilot anymore. You don't even have to just be an astronaut. Also there is commercial space as well.
Dr. Proctor: Right, that's correct.
Quinn: There's also things like analog astronaut. Most importantly, what can we do to help and what can people do to help themselves to get more, I mean frankly, women and people of color into these various programs that are theoretically available to them?
Dr. Proctor: Well, I think knowledge is power. One of the things is spreading the word. That's one of the reasons why I started the website analogastronaut.com, so that people, they can go there and find out about what is an analog astronaut, where are the sites and where is the training and so we try to keep the current training options because there's places where you can actually go live in a simulation or you can go and get training in like high altitude stuff and centrifuges and all of these really interesting things that you would need to be able to experience as an astronaut.
Dr. Proctor: I think that's one way. It's just awareness, and when you hear somebody who says, "Hey, I want to be an astronaut." Then you say, "Well, hey. There's a lot of training opportunity out there for you now. You should check out this," because I feel like this is the first gate into things. I know that there's a lot of people in high school and especially when they get into the university, you can be an analog astronaut before you get your science degree from your undergrad.
Quinn: Sure, sure.
Dr. Proctor: So you can go live in one of these simulations and begin the -
Brian: So the requirements are a little looser?
Dr. Proctor: It is and basically they're looking for people who are scientist but also artist too -
Dr. Proctor: To go and live in these simulations and communication, mass media.
Dr. Proctor: It's even broader.
Quinn: Right, so specifically on your website, are there links to these programs and how people can apply for them and access them?
Dr. Proctor: Yup and so when they go to, it's www.analogastronaut.com. You might have to put the http in front of it.
Brian: I did not have to when I just put it in my browser.
Dr. Proctor: When you go to the website, the first thing I want to point out is that we talk about the Mercury 13 which were the women who were selected to go through the same as the men during the Mercury Program but never got to fly. In my mind, they were really the first analog astronauts because they got to train to help advance human space flight without leaving Earth and then you can click on the Analog Locations which gives you the latest locations around the world with links to all of those locations and these are places you would go and live in a simulation and then you can click on Analog Astronaut Training and it's a list of all of the current ways that you can engage in this type of training or advancement of human space flight along with the links to their individual web pages.
Brian: So cool!
Dr. Proctor: And then we have a Facebook group that we'd like to post interesting things about, and right now, I'm proud to say that this website is run by three females.
Brian: Oh, yeah.
Dr. Proctor: There's me, an African-American female, there's Yajaira who is Hispanic and was born and raised in Puerto Rico and then there's Andreea who was born in Romania and lives in Canada and these are amazing women. Our goal, the reason why the three -
Quinn: I love it.
Dr. Proctor: We came together is because we wanted to promote more women and women of color to think about space and space exploration.
Quinn: I think you made an important point earlier and it sounds like you guys are trying to do this in yourselves in some way as well. Awareness is key getting people and you've built this amazing website. It is the hub of the place you need to go to find out about these programs aside from applying for a job at Space X or NASA whatever it might be.
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Quinn: What can we do to help make it so these folks are actually now chosen and successful in said programs? That start a bit sounds more of conversations of either our elected representatives who might serve on technology committees or contacting these organizations themselves because we want to make sure we're not just sending them to slaughter.
Brian: Right, right.
Quinn: It's like, how do we make it aware that, "Hey, we're walking and we know you keep picking white guys"?
Dr. Proctor: I think the first thing is number one, always vote when there's an election.
Quinn: Jesus, please vote.
Dr. Proctor: Be engaged and vote and not only vote but vote for people are pro-science. We are in this age of anti-science, fake news, nothing's real, but no, there is real news and real science. I never in my life would have thought I would have to march for science, and even when I say that, it's mind boggling but to support representatives that understand and want to support science and scientific initiatives that move us forward in a positive way and I'm talking space exploration. A good friend of mine, Mike Mongo is his name. I remember the day he said it. He said, "If we solve for space, we solve for Earth" and I've been using that as my mantra ever since.
Quinn: That's really good.
Dr. Proctor: "If we solve for space, we solve for Earth," and I mean this and that when we are looking at survival in space, you're talking about water, air, food, shelter. Those are the big four. Those are the things that we need to survive in space but they're also the things that we need to thrive here on Earth.
Dr. Proctor: As we become more efficient with water, energy, food, shelter in space, all that technology comes back to Earth and we use it to make us be more successful and to be able to thrive here on Earth. I think a lot of people miss that connection that space exploration and technology allows us to be more efficient and successful here on Earth.
Quinn: I love that and it's true. I mean there's always examples of everybody uses of, "Oh, by the way, you wouldn't have your fancy iPhone without the space shuttle."
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Quinn: But it is true. It really is true. These things will continue to come back to us as long as we start with basic science funding and then we keep going with NASA funding and then eventually these things do come back to us.
Dr. Proctor: They do come back to us.
Brian: That's very good to know and say out loud because I feel like a lot of times when we're sharing stuff in our newsletter or on our podcast about space exploration or any sort of advancement a lot of times we get people that are like, "Why spend money on that? Why are we putting money in time and to space?" as if it's not connected here.
Dr. Proctor: It is. It is intimately connected and what's interesting is that again I think that the whole idea of pushing human survival to its limits, we learn so much and that's why we do it.
Dr. Proctor: And so you can imagine we have the ISS but what about when we get the colony on the money and then the colony on Mars and what we will learn and how efficient we have to be in order to survive and these non-habitable spaces will ultimately make us so much better on Earth and so it's not about leaving Earth. It's about being able to take what we learn from these extreme exploration locations and then apply that technology back to Earth.
Quinn: Like you said and we'll start to wrap it up here. It's not just the technical things we learn, it's not just learning to be more efficient, it's learning who you are and what you're made of. I had a lot of talk to my 5-year-old recently about why we do hard things, but it's also gaining and everybody who has been into space has said this and they haven't even live on the Moon or Mars, but they sure have been through it, nothing like being stuck in a capsule where something's going wrong, but imagine you're in one of those colonies and you come and suddenly you have a sense of appreciation for what you do have here and why we need to take care of this.
Quinn: It's not just being in a capsule and looking back at the blue marvel. It's not like, "Oh, Mars is going to be hard to habitate." You cannot. Everything is artificial. Everything is extremely limited and there's one place we know of where these things are native and we have just laid wreck to this thing.
Dr. Proctor: Right.
Quinn: And having that sense of appreciation is so vital and that's where I think people like you and your commitment to scientific communication and education is so vital. I do want to ask you this before we start to wrap up, Dr. Proctor. After all of these incredible experiences and the back and forth in life dream being sent to an email again, "Do you want to be an astronaut?" out of nowhere and then not working out and then pivoting, do you feel like you're on the right path now personally?
Dr. Proctor: Absolutely. I am so happy with the things that I have been able to do. People always think that your career and your path is linear and it's not. There are zigs and zags and every zig and zag has made me a better person, more resilient and I can honestly say that I'm really happy with all of the things that I have been able to do, particularly I know that my calling is to be a science communicator and to just inspire the next generation to explore our world and beyond and to take on tough questions and tough challenges and be solution-based and figure out ways for not only ourselves as individual but humanity to move forward in a positive way.
Quinn: I love it. We're definitely not the next generation, but you've inspired the hell out of us and we're going to try to -
Brian: Hell yeah. Thank you.
Quinn: Pass it on all the young -
Dr. Proctor: Every generation deserves to be inspired.
Brian: Thank you for doing this.
Quinn: Spunky young people with all the hope in their eyes and listen to us for whatever reason.
Dr. Proctor: But also I like the idea of getting to the older generation, the people who have money because where are you going to put your money and what are you going to do with it and how do you support these causes and so I think that that's important too.
Quinn: Yeah and by the way, as much as we talk about it is important to have a liberal arts major nerds like me or others on Mars, there's a huge dearth of young people of color especially girls who might want to pursue STEM stuff and organizations like Girls Who Code or Black Girls Code or wonderful organizations that you can contribute to that I personally do and will continue to their great places.
Dr. Proctor: Absolutely.
Quinn: All right, Brian, let's take it home here, brother.
Brian: Let's wrap this thing up. This has seriously been so fantastic and I can't think of a more interesting that I would want to talk about, so thank you very much for being here.
Dr. Proctor: Thank you.
Quinn: Yeah, absolutely. We got a little bit of a lightning round.
Quinn: That we asked everybody.
Brian: Some of them by the way.
Quinn: Dr. Proctor. Okay, Brian. Doctor, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Dr. Proctor: Undergraduate. I realized that I controlled my destiny when I went off to college for the first time and that was empowering especially since I was the only Black female in my program and I didn't have a single Black female science professor in my entire college career. We're talking undergrad, master's and PhD.
Quinn: Wow! I love it.
Brian: Doctor, who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Dr. Proctor: Ohhhhh, good question.
Quinn: And as always, you cannot say Brian.
Dr. Proctor: No.
Brian: But thank you for thinking of me.
Dr. Proctor: My husband. My husband.
Brian: Pretty good answer.
Dr. Proctor: Yeah, because he supports me like when I met him I literally said, "Well, I'm going to go off and live in a Mars simulation for four months." "And I'll see you when I get back out," and he is stuck with me through all of the analog simulations. This past summer, we were in Switzerland. I was at CERN giving a talk on how to feed an astronaut and I met the lady who's going to Pila, Poland. She's going to be the commander of this mission and she turned to me and said, "We have an opening. We need somebody, but it's next week," and I literally turned to my husband and said, "I might just stay in Europe and go to Pila, Poland and live in a simulation," and he said, "Of course, you will. I'll see you when you get home."
Quinn: That's awesome.
Brian: That's amazing.
Dr. Proctor: So, my husband is so supportive of all of the things that I want to do and I love him for that.
Quinn: That is special. That's something we can all try to aspire to.
Brian: We're going to have to talk to you at another time about space food. It's also very interesting.
Dr. Proctor: Yes. I'm going to live on a ship for two months next summer called the JOIDES Resolution, so going to sea -
Brian: Of course, you are.
Quinn: I love it.
Dr. Proctor: Yeah.
Brian: Amazing. All right. What do you do, Sian, when you feel overwhelmed?
Dr. Proctor: Oh, when I feel overwhelmed -
Quinn: Specifically, give it to us.
Dr. Proctor: I like to watch cheesy movies that are either romantic comedies or sci-fi fantasy.
Quinn: Well, you got to name titles now.
Dr. Proctor: Okay.
Quinn: Give us your three go-tos.
Dr. Proctor: Harry Potter. I love Harry Potter.
Quinn: Wait, wait. That's not cheesy.
Brian: Yeah, hold on.
Dr. Proctor: Twilight series.
Quinn: Yeah, there we go.
Brian: More cheesy.
Dr. Proctor: I like series with vampires and then like You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
Quinn: All day.
Brian: That's a really good one.
Dr. Proctor: I love romantic comedies and I love fun sci-fi or fantasy that just makes you feel good when it's over.
Brian: Yeah, awesome.
Quinn: I love it. I love it.
Brian: How do you consume the news normally?
Dr. Proctor: I usually get news through my Twitter feed or social media now. My first job from undergrad was working at a news station. I was a video editor for the 5:00, 6:00 and 11:00 news for two years before going to grad school and I know, skills that I use today is video editing in everything that I do but I cannot watch the news.
Dr. Proctor: I spend 20 years. My husband has a political science background and was a history teacher and so he loves the news, so it has been fun being married to somebody who is a newsperson and me like, "Oh, turn that off."
Quinn: Yeah, I get it. I can see both sides of that for sure.
Dr. Proctor: I like things like I like having my Twitter feed. I like podcast, things like that. I love listening to the radio and NPR when I'm driving to work. Those are the times when I get my news.
Brian: We're on the same boat.
Brian: All right. One more, we've done a good job of not talking about this person, but if you can Amazon Prime one book to our President Donald Trump, what would it be?
Dr. Proctor: Oh, boy! That's a really tough question.
Quinn: Anything goes. We've got everything from coloring books to The Constitution.
Dr. Proctor: No, well, I think I would send him Bill Bryson's Brief History of Nearly Everything.
Brian: That's such a good book.
Dr. Proctor: And the reason why because it's science and I think a good science lesson on the history of science and how science works would be enlightening for him.
Quinn: I love that. That's a hell of an answer.
Brian: Doctor, where can our listeners follow you online?
Dr. Proctor: Oh, I have an open Facebook page and I am just Sian Proctor on it. I think I'm Dr. Sian Proctor. On Twitter, I'm again Sian Proctor. You can Google me. You can see me. I have my TV show. I'm on Strange Evidence. I'm the STEM demo expert on the Science Channel TV show Strange Evidence. Season 2 just ended but Season 3 will be coming up and so I've been on every season of that.
Dr. Proctor: Yeah, I also have Instagram, Sian Proctor, so just Google me, Sian Proctor. You'll find me all over the place.
Quinn: I love it. Boy, Dr. Proctor. This has been a special one I think for us. So we really appreciate obviously all that you've done and all that you've continued to do and for making time for us to have this conversation today. I think people are just going to love this. I certainly did. I feel inspired and lucky, so thank you.
Brian: Thank you very much.
Dr. Proctor: Well, thank you for having me on. It was a real pleasure to talk to both of you and we hope we get to meet some time in the future.
Quinn: Absolutely. Let us know if you ever in Sunny and On Fire, Los Angeles.
Dr. Proctor: I certainly will.
Quinn: Thanks for our incredible guest today and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dishwashing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter at Importantnotimp. Just so weird. Also on Facebook and Instagram at Important, Not Important. Pinterest and Tumblr the same thing, so check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal and please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this, and if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcasts. Keep the lights on. Thanks.
Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jam and music. To all of you for listening and finally, most importantly to our moms for making us. Have a great day!
Brian: Thanks guys!