By Dr. Christine Anne Royce, NSTA Past President (18-19)
Posted on 2021-09-13
Science educators often travel to conferences, field sites, and other events to learn more about “everything science.” While travel has been limited over the past 18 months, NSTA member Dr. Sian Proctor has been preparing for the ultimate STEM trip: a three-day orbital mission aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule Resilience, which launches this week. This mission, chartered by Jared Isaacman, an internet entrepreneur, is the first all-civilian orbital mission and a fundraising effort for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, with the goal of raising $200 million to combat childhood cancers.
Isaacman will lead the team as they make history on Wednesday, September 15, at 8 p.m. ET (weather permitting) at NASA Kennedy Space Flight Center, where their flight will lift off from Pad 39A.
Proctor will pilot the SpaceX Crew Dragon during this mission, dubbed Inspiration4. Being a pilot is not a new role for her, as she first set her sights on becoming a military aviator and learned to fly after joining the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) in New York. She is still active in the CAP, holding the rank of major and serving as the aerospace education officer for the Arizona Wing. In addition, she currently serves on NSTA's Aerospace Education Advisory Board.
On a Friday evening in August, Proctor generously took some time to talk with me about how she became an educator; her love of science, art, and all things space; and her upcoming launch.
About Sian Proctor
Proctor was born in Guam, and her father was an engineer/contractor with Sperry UNIVAC who worked on the Apollo lunar missions. During our conversation, she described her father as a “self-taught” scientist who also excelled in math. She described her parents as supportive and encouraging to her and her siblings. Both of her parents encouraged her to study science and engineering in college, since education was a way to advance in the world, especially for minorities, they explained.
Having grown up in a space-themed home, her love of space and pursuit of a space-related career have long influenced her life. She applied to the astronaut corps and was chosen as one of the finalists in 2009. She contributed to the understanding of advancements in spaceflight by participating in a four-month NASA Mars simulation project in Hawaii called HI-SEAS. As the education and outreach coordinator for this mission, she investigated food options that could be used in long-duration missions.
Proctor ultimately found her calling in science education. According to Arizona State University's (ASU) ASU News, she was the first graduate student to complete an education-based master’s degree in geology. She earned both a PhD in science education and an MS in geology from ASU. She currently teaches courses in geology, planetary science, and sustainability at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona.
A self-proclaimed geoscience explorer and recognized science communicator, Proctor is also an artist and advocates for using art and poetry to communicate “across cultures and borders” on her personal website. She notes that she "uses her afrofuturism space art to encourage conversations about women of color in the space industry.”
In addition to piloting the mission, Proctor will teach an art lesson from space. Art is a significant part of her world, and she declares a “love for science, art, exploration, and spaceflight.” This combination of passions has greatly helped her in her latest endeavor. Proctor competed for her seat on this mission by developing an online store that uses Isaacman’s Shift4Payment internet processing methods. Her shop, Space2Inspire, features original artwork, clothing that incorporates her artwork, and other goods for the home.
As part of the competition, she had to explain why she hoped to secure that golden ticket to space. She did so with a poem and a short video on Twitter.
When asked “Why art?” during our conversation, she replied that creativity in what we do, who we are, and scientific endeavors is a unique and amazing way to solve complex problems. She remarked that through STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), humans could feel and explore the story of our past, and in a sense, become time travelers.
Proctor's prior experiences with various programs and opportunities enabled her to look out into space and down into the Earth. In 2016, for example, she was selected for the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program, which allowed her to learn about and work with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, among other observatories that explore the universe. And as part of the 2019 JOIDES Resolution Mission 383, which extracted core samples from the frozen waters surrounding Antarctica and studied circumpolar currents, she served as an onboard outreach officer, whose task was to share the science of this mission through social media and live broadcasts.
The Mission and Crew
The mission's four crew members will occupy positions that each represent the four mission pillars: Leadership, Hope, Prosperity, and Generosity. An avid Twitter user, @DrSianProctor, who will be in the Prosperity seat, has been communicating about the upcoming Inspiration4 mission over the last several months, along with her fellow crewmates:
How do an internet entrepreneur/billionaire, a cancer survivor/physician’s assistant, an educator/entrepreneur, and an Air Force veteran/engineer prepare for spaceflight?
In the last six months, Proctor and her fellow travelers have participated in commercial astronaut training. They learned everything about Dragon; practiced the scientific experiments that will be conducted during the flight, such as drawing blood; experienced weightlessness on a “zero-g” flight to simulate short bursts of microgravity; and even climbed Mount Rainier in Washington State. I caught up with Proctor not long after that climb, which she described as one of the hardest tasks she’s ever accomplished, despite her extensive experience as a geologist. She explained that one of her key takeaways was that she and her crewmates needed to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” because three days in orbit will surely be uncomfortable.
Even when she is in uncomfortable situations, Proctor’s energy is apparent in every photo of her that I have seen. Her focus, perseverance, and creativity certainly have aligned to support her as she heads to space.
The trailer for the Netflix documentary about Inspiration4 opens with this message: “Space is a place that has always beckoned us. We look out and see it and can’t help but dream about it.” Undoubtedly NSTA Member Sian Proctor will have an opportunity for those dreams to come true during this historical event.
Follow the mission on Twitter: @inspiration4x; on Instagram: @inspiration4; or on the web: https://inspiration4.com. Follow Proctor on Twitter: @DrSianProctor.
Dr. Christine Anne Royce is a past president of the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). Royce is currently a professor in the teacher education department and co-director for the MAT in STEM Education program at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.
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