Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center

...if you can be an astronaut right here on Earth? (with Sian Proctor)

March 03, 2021 Season 2 Episode 4
Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center
...if you can be an astronaut right here on Earth? (with Sian Proctor)
Show Notes Transcript

Well, it’s official. NASA stuck the landing on Mars with its latest rover, Perseverance! And even though it will likely be decades before we send humans to Mars, many folks are now excitedly talking about how Perseverance will lay the groundwork for future human missions. But what if you don’t want to wait decades to experience what it’s like to live on Mars?

Do you ever wonder if you can be an astronaut right here on Earth?

Analog astronauts do just that—they participate in human spaceflight research and training by living in special places on Earth that are similar to Mars or the Moon. 

We spoke with Sian Proctor (@DrSianProctor), an analog astronaut and geoscience professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, AZ. She tells us all about what analog astronauts do and what it’s like to live in a mock Mars habitat for months in Hawaii. Check it out.

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to everwonder@californiasciencecenter.org to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.

Follow us on Twitter (@casciencecenter), Instagram (@californiasciencecenter), and Facebook (@californiasciencecenter).

Support the show (https://CaliforniaScienceCenter.org/support)

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Hello! This is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth -Johnson. Well, it's official. NASA stuck the landing on Mars with its latest rover, Perseverance! And even though it will likely be decades before we send humans to Mars, many folks are now excitedly talking about how Perseverance will lay the groundwork for future human missions. But what if you don't want to wait decades to experience what it's like to live on Mars? Do you ever wonder if you can be an astronaut right here on Earth? Analog astronauts do just that--they participate in human spaceflight research and training by living in special places on Earth that are similar to Mars or the Moon. We spoke with Sian Proctor, an analog astronaut and geoscience professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. She tells us all about what analog astronauts do and what it's like to live in a mock Mars habitat for months in Hawaii. Check it out. Dr . Sian Proctor, you are a geoscience professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, and you're also an analog astronaut . Welcome to the show!

Sian Proctor:

Thank you for having me.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Yeah. And Devin Waller, my co-host at the California Science Center is also here today. Hi Devin!

Devin Waller:

Hey Perry. Thanks for having me back on the show. And hi Sian. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

So Sian, I know you've been a geoscience professor for over 20 years, right? You're currently not in the classroom because among other things, you're also an artist and explore and an analog astronaut , uh , for our listeners who might not be familiar. Uh, what is an analog astronaut?

Sian Proctor:

Analog astronaut is somebody who , um , engages in human space, flight research and training, but here on Earth. So basically they're people who are not officially associated, usually with a space agency like NASA or European space agency or jacks or something like that. There are individuals who are living in moon and Mars simulations, or they're doing some kind of space flight training, but , um , independently.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Okay. Um , and so like while you're doing things here on earth, does that help prepare astronauts for missions when they go into space? Is that the idea?

Sian Proctor:

Yes, exactly. And so the analog astronaut community really supports those , uh , space agencies like NASA and European space agencies. So what happens is NASA will provide funding to principal investigators at universities, and then those university professors will engage in some kind of research around human space flight. So it might be something like , um, crew cohesion. And so they want to understand how do you select the best crew for long duration space flight. And so it's better to figure that out here on Earth before you send anybody out in space. And so they will, they will figure out how to, how to do that through these analogs and , and an analog is something that's analogous to something else. So if you're looking for something that's similar to the moon or Mars like landscape wise or geology , um, then you can go to places on earth that had those same similar features and do research or investigations or set up a habitat for people to live in.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

In another episode of this show, we talked to Kelsey Young, a planetary space scientists and NASA Goddard who trains astronauts at places called analog sites. But you're actually on the receiving end of this. Um, you've participated in a number of programs at these sites like spending four months in Hawaii at high seas, two weeks , uh , in Utah at Mars desert research station, a couple of weeks in Poland at the Lunars moon habitat. So I just want to get, you know , your perspective from the other side, living in these analog sites, like why do people do these things? Like what motivates you to go spend four months in Hawaii and not, not in the beaches of Hawaii? Right. What, what motivates you to do that?

Sian Proctor:

Yeah. You know, well, it's funny because that they need people that will willingly go and live in these analog sites, these habitats as volunteers, and basically you're a Guinea pig to science and a lot reasons why we do this is that we're the kids who wanted to go to space camp. And so I remember as a kid that I was like, I want to go to space camp and my parents being like, we can't afford space camp. And so, and now as an adult, when I found out that people can go live in a Mars simulation for four months. Um, okay. And so that's, I think the big draw is that when we think about the astronaut selection process, it's such a competitive process that only a very, very, very, very, very, very, very few people get the opportunity to get selected. And , um , if you're one of the lucky ones, the win , the golden ticket, great, but for the rest of us who really want to contribute to human space flight, how can we do that? And being an analog, astronaut is one of those fun, interesting ways where you basically go in. And I was fortunate that for my four months , um , at high seas and my two weeks at Mars desert research station , uh , they were both funded from NASA to , and it was all about investigating food strategies for long duration space flight. So I was part of a , uh , very, you know, rigorous research study by NASA, where we were investigating food strategies, strategies for long duration space flight. But we were also doing other research for other, you know, things that NASA was interested in, like microbial growth on clothing. Um, but we also could bring in our own research agenda and do that in at the same time. So it's a, win-win where you get to advance your own research, but you're also helping out to advance the overall portfolio of human space flight.

Devin Waller:

So I want to break that down a little bit. So you were talking about HiSEAS and for anybody that doesn't know what that, what that stands for, it stands for Hawaii space, exploration, analog, and simulation, and it was a simulated environment in a geodesic dome. That's placed on the surface of Hawaii. Um, I want to get to know what was that experience like? How did you spend those four months?

Sian Proctor:

So, I was really lucky in that I was part of the very first crew to live in the HiSEAS habitat. And so in 2012, a call went out basically on the internet saying we we're going to set up this new analog site on the big island, the big island of Hawaii at 8,000 feet on the slopes of Mauna Loa and we're looking for six people to come and live for four months in this site, in this habitat or dome, and it's going to be a Mars simulation. So you're going to be acting like you're living on Mars. And so I was like , um, and , and the main thing was to investigate food. And I was like, Oh, okay. So I applied and I applied as the education outreach officer. So how do I get the word out about this new analog site? And so, because it was a food study, I thought , um, and being a teacher and stuff, I was like, well, why don't we run a recipe contest for people around the world? And they could, we will , we'll share our space pantry with them, like all of the ingredients and food that we're going to have. And the thing about it was this research , um , question was basically, we were going to eat two days like astronauts eat now, which is already prepared just at water and heat meals. And then we're going to have two days of being able to eat freeze, dried fruits, meats, and vegetables, or other shelf , stable ingredients , um, and creatively cook with that. So two days already prepared meals then two days of creative cooking. And we alternated back and forth for the entire four months. And we rotated in the crew of who would be cooking. So I thought, well, on the days that I'm cooking, I'll, I'll run this recipe contest. And I will see, I will cook , um, these recipes and I'll basically do a cooking show from Mars. And I call it meals , um, meals for Mars. And we got over 70 recipes submitted, and I picked 25 five in each category of like soups and stews main meals, snacks, desserts, and, yeah, and , and so , uh, and so I would cook with them either by myself or with a crew mate and over the four months. So it was really interesting way to think about living in a Mars analog , um, in this small, tiny dome with five individuals, and I'm doing this research study and then having people outside, be able to follow, follow along and see what we were doing when it came to food.

Devin Waller:

So you mentioned freeze, dried foods. What is the process for freeze dried? I know we've heard the terms freeze, dry dehydrated. Can you break that down a little bit? And , and what kinds of things are you able to make?

Sian Proctor:

Yeah, so freeze dried versus dehydrated. Um, dehydration is really the process of drying the food. And a lot of times it shrivels up and some of the nutrients that are in the food are lost in that process. And when you rehydrate, it never comes back to its full shape and volume. Whereas when you freeze dry, what you do is you actually freeze the food and then you sublimate, the water out of it. And that gets 98% of the water out, but it leaves the shape of the food the same, and it just preserves it in a better, more crisp way. And so when you rehydrate that food, it's very similar to the consistency of frozen vegetables or frozen meat that you thawed out. And so that's the difference. And then I will say that another difference is if you have freeze dried meat, that meat is cooked and then freeze dried. And so versus it being , um, raw and frozen. And so it makes it really easy to deal with once you rehydrate it and the dishes that you want to make. So you can make things like , um, space tacos and stews, and , um, yeah, surprisingly, a lot of different things because you can have, you can pretty much freeze dry, anything that has uh moisture in it.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

I'm just curious Sian. Did you have a favorite recipe out of those 25 that you cooked?

Sian Proctor:

Ooo you know , um , we did a Moroccan beef to Jean , which was fantastic.

Devin Waller:

Oh Wow.

Sian Proctor:

Yes. And then there, we did a chicken enchilada soup that I really loved. Um, we did for desserts, there was one and people were so creative with the names. Um, it was dark matter cake with star dust frosting.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Wow.

Sian Proctor:

And, and then also like making crackers from scratch. And so I was amazed at the creativity of the people who looked at our space pantry and said, Oh, how about trying this?

Devin Waller:

Hmm , sounds delicious. Where can we find these recipes? Can we find them?

Sian Proctor:

Yes, there actually, I have a meals for Mars website and it's just www.meals with the number four and then Mars , all one word. Um, and so you can go there and then I also have, YouTube channel, that's just a Syan Proctor on YouTube. And if you go there, I have all the meals for Mars videos on one of my playlist.

Devin Waller:

Definitely have to check it out.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

I'll have to go check that out.

Devin Waller:

So we've been talking a lot about your work as an analog astronaut, but I do want to highlight the fact that you, you were a finalist for the astronaut program in 2009. And , uh , first of all, congratulations, because that's a huge accomplishment. You are one of only a few dozen, highly qualified candidates that were selected for interviews out of what you , I think it was 3,500 , um, applicants.

Sian Proctor:

Yeah. You know, it's interesting because I, I consider myself to be a moon baby. Um, I was a direct result of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. And the reason why I say that is that my family was living on the Island of Guam. My dad was working for a NASA contractor at the time at the NASA tracking station there. So we were there from 66 to 70, and that was basically Apollo 8. I think he did some stuff with , um, Gemini before that, but , um, all the way up to Mercury, I mean, to Apollo 13. So we were on Guam for Apollo 11 and I was born eight and a half months after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon celebration, baby . Um, and what's cool about that is Neil Armstrong actually came to Guam the tracking station after he got back from the moon. And , uh , my dad got his autograph, you know, it says to Ed, thanks for all the help, Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11. And so I grew up with this and other NASA memorabilia on my, on the walls, in my house, you know, as a kid and , um , trying to relate to what my father had done. And I had always thought, Oh, I it would be amazing to be an astronaut. I loved science and astronomy and exploration, but I also loved military aircraft. And so I thought that I could become a military aviator and , you know, flying the F-16 and then a transition to becoming the shuttle commander. I right. Cause how hard could that be? Right? When you're a kid, it was a top gun era. Everybody, you know, when the shuttle was flying, but then I got glasses and that meant you can't be a military aviator. Um , but then also my father died when he got cancer lung cancer when I was in high school and then passed away. So I kind of just thought, okay, space isn't for me, I'm going to go off and get my degrees and do some other things. So I became a geo explorer and just kind of doing my thing. I'd always loved , um, you know, aviation. So I got my pilot's license. I traveled and taught around the world and I got scuba certified and I was just doing things. And , uh, and then in 2008, somebody sent me an email saying is looking for astronauts. You should apply. And I was like, wait, what? You know, but I opened up link because I didn't know how they selected astronauts. I hadn't really , um , investigated that. And I looked at the qualifications and I realized that I was really well qualified, but I kept thinking, well, why would they take me? You know, I'm just a community college professor. Um, so just this imposter syndrome coming in and, you know, really casting doubt on, you know, my abilities, but , um, you know, thinking about my father and what he would say, he'd be like, why are you, why are you, you know, taking yourself out of the game at least apply and let them tell you whether you're qualified or not. So I applied and I, you know, the next thing I know, I'm highly qualified. You get a little note, you know, and then after that, they, you get a call saying, Hey, we'd like you to come down. You've made the top one 10, and we want to interview you for three days at Johnson Space Center. And you're like, um me. Wait, are you sure? And then you show up and you're like, yeah. And you're surrounded by these amazing people. And then you go through those three days and then you go home and you wait and they say, well, you know, we're only going to take, you know, so many finalists and you're like, okay, my phone hasn't rang. So, you know, that's over, but that was cool. But then one day your phone rings and they say, "Hey, you know, we want you to come for a week to Johnson Space Center." You're now a finalist. And, and that's when they really poke and prod you to see if there's anything that they should , um, medically disqualify you for. So I had this amazing physical, and I can say, and by this time I'm 39 and I can say at 39 I had , um, I was perfectly healthy. So I did not get medically disqualified. And then you go home and you wait, you literally wait for yes, no phone call. And I remember the day that , um, I got my phone call, I was at Goddard Space Flight Center doing a , um, kind of like a summer internship program. And , um, the phone, you know, we got this kind of thing saying , uh , text , you know, NASA is calling today. And so, and there was this rumor that if it was a male voice, then it was going to be a no, but if it was a, yes, it was most likely going to be, if it was a woman, then it was going to be most likely a yes. So , and the reason why was because the person who was in charge of the selection process was a female , um, you know, who was running the selection process. Um, and, and so that she would call with the yeses. So when I answered the phone, it was a female and I went and it was astronaut Sunita Williams. And she's like, Oh, sorry, you didn't get selected. And I was like, huh . Okay. Um, and you basically were like, Oh my goodness. I came down to a yes/no. Um, and so it was this amazing year long , um, just experience that really changed my life. Um, and so I went off and did some funny things. Like I was on a reality TV show called the colony. And then, and then the , this , um, opportunity to go and live in the HiSEAS habitat and become an analog astronaut became available. And the last eight years , um, I've been doing a lot of stuff in that arena.

Devin Waller:

Wow. I want to touch on something you mentioned. Um, and it's , it's interesting, you mentioned it while we're talking about something that only a very select few people, highly qualified candidates get to experience, but you talked about imposter syndrome and that, you know, you've experienced and, you know, I saw a Ted talk that you did. And you mentioned how this feeling of , um, that insecurity a bit is something that you have experienced, even in these ex these times when you have achieved so much. Um, this is a , this is a feeling that's so common as so many women and so many women of color like myself. And I just want to know, you mentioned in your Ted talk that you never had any black female role models in education while you were going through your education. And so I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling. So I just want to hear a little bit more about your experiences with it. And how did you sort of overcome that?

Sian Proctor:

Yeah. You know, imposter syndrome is something that I've suffered from my entire life. I still suffer from it or a struggle with it, I should say, even now , um, today and , uh, in , in it's that, that voice inside your head that just fuels you with this , um, this doubt of your abilities. And so, especially when you're engaging in something where others are watching you or can scrutinize you or , um, or you're going for a job that is new in a new territory. And you're like, why would they pick me? Um, and so when I was applying for the NASA astronaut program, that narrative kept coming up again and again, you know, from the moment that email came and I clicked it open, I kept thinking "I'm just a community college professor why would they pick me?" Um, I went to a school that most people don't even, you know, know of for undergrad. And I didn't go to, because I had my own narrative in my head of what NASA , um , would be looking for. And, and who are astronauts, astronauts are the top of the top. They are the people who went to Ivy league schools or MIT, or, you know, they're the best of the fighter pilot class. And, and so because of that, I kept saying, well, you know, there's no way, there's no way they're g onna pick me. Who am I? And, and that's where the only way you can combat that is having that other voice in your head that says, wait a second, let's slow this down. U m, you know, don't count yourself out, let somebody else tell you whether you're qualified or not, u m, you know, put in the application. And so many people don't even give themselves a chance because they let that voice, u m, basically rob them of that. And instead of just kind of saying, well, wait a second, let's slow this narrative down. And let's let's think about this from a, u m, more positive, proactive, you know, lens. And so that's what I try to do because, u m, even now when I go and give presentations and I have to walk out on a stage and it might be, you know, 500 people out there, I'm nervous. And I'm like, Oh, what am I doing? I'm not the expert in this really. You want me to give this presentation, but then I slow it down. And I tell myself, look, you have the training, you have what it takes. You just need to step out there and you'll be just fine. And then there's also, what's the worst that can happen, you know, with a NASA astronaut selection, they don't select me. I'm still a geology professor. So a lot of times y ou're, i t, it, it, it doesn't take away from you going after these things. Sure. You might be disappointed that you don't get selected, but it's not like it knocks you down. It just, u m, you know, it just means that you're still at that place where you are, but you've had this amazing experience a nd journey and for the NASA astronaut selection, that's what it is. If I had not applied, I never w ould h ave had this amazing year of discovery.

Devin Waller:

Yeah.

Sian Proctor:

So even though it was a no in the end, still so worth it.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

So we're, we're at a time , uh, today, but Dr. Proctor , uh, Sian it's just been a real pleasure talking to you. Uh, thanks for sharing your story. And thanks for joining us on the show today.

Sian Proctor:

Thank you for having me. And you know, the one last thing I want to say is that , um, human space exploration is something that any of us can engage in. There are ways out there for you to be involved in whether you want to live as an analog astronaut, or if you just want to go on and do some citizen science stuff at home , uh, you can be your own Explorer. And so I encourage everybody to get out there and either be an Astro Explorer and doing human space flight or geo Explorer and exploring either your neighborhood or beyond.

Devin Waller:

That's wonderful. Thank you.

Sian Proctor:

Thank you for having me.

Perry Roth-Johnson:

Well, that's our show, and thanks for listening! Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Castillo. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. Special thanks to Devin Waller for producing and hosting this series. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review, or tell a friend about us. Now, our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning and everyone continues! We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining essential operations like on- site animal care, and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift at californiasciencecenter.org/support.