Science communicator Sian Proctor’s adventures have taken her to Mars and Moon simulations, seeking the lessons of space travel, from food sustainability to friendship.
Somewhere between the giant telescopes of the Atacama Desert, Sian Proctor was struck with serious impostor syndrome. It was the summer of 2016, and Proctor – a geology and sustainability professor at South Mountain Community College – was on an astronomy ambassador program so prestigious and outside her wheelhouse she almost didn’t apply. But as usual, her curiosity had eclipsed her doubts. In Chile, those doubts returned. One day, her fellow ambassadors introduced themselves to a class, outlining intimidating astronomical résumés. Then Dr. Proctor stood up. “I’m an analog astronaut,” she said. “I live in habitats as if I’m living on Mars.” Everyone looked at her as if she were an exotic neutron star. And that’s when it dawned on her: She wasn’t here because she fit in; she was here because she brought something different.
Though Proctor insists “I’m just ordinary,” the 48-year-old is on an atypical orbit. She’s a rare black female science communicator inspiring audiences from TEDx stages to TV shows. She’s a geo-explorer who’s lived in a lunar simulation and on an Alaskan fishing boat. She’s an author teaching earthlings to live sustainably by eating like Martian astronauts – her e-cookbook, Meals for Mars, debuts this month.
“I feel like I’ve been chasing space my whole life, but in interesting ways,” Proctor says, sitting in her space-themed work space in her south Phoenix home, wearing a NASA shirt that says “I need my space.” She’s talking about outer space, “but also finding my space here on Earth and where I belong.”
Both space quests began on Guam, where she was born. Her father, a contractor for NASA, worked on the island’s remote tracking station and met Neil Armstrong. Not long after, the family moved to Minnesota and various Northeastern states, and her father changed careers. But Sian remained moonstruck. She marveled at her father’s Apollo mission certificates, some of which now hang in her home. She joined the Civil Air Patrol with the goal of becoming a military aviator, then an astronaut. But at 15 she got glasses, and the dream dimmed.
After earning a B.S. in environmental science from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, she felt a gravitational pull to wide-open space. So she moved west to earn a master’s degree in geology from Arizona State University. Working as a teacher’s assistant, she loved getting students as excited about science as she was. So she became a professor at SMCC and earned a Ph.D. in science education from ASU. She also traveled the world, joined an ice hockey team, earned a pilot’s license and got scuba-certified.
In 2008, a friend sent a message saying NASA was recruiting astronauts, and she should apply. This set off an internal battle she says many people experience. One voice doubts: Am I qualified? They’ll never pick me. “But I also am the type of person who’s like, ‘Eh, I got nothing to lose. Why not?’” she says. “And the more adventurous me usually wins out.” For the next year she was on an emotional roller coaster of tryouts. She made the top 47, but missed the final cut.
Then, out of the blue, the Discovery Channel sent her a Facebook message saying they were casting a post-apocalyptic reality show, and one of her friends had recommended her. So she found herself on The Colony, constructing a solar oven and water filtration system, and carving a propeller for an airboat to escape faux marauders in a Louisiana swamp. After the show, she solo hiked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrim route in Spain and did a sabbatical developing natural disasters curriculum with FEMA, where she met her husband.
By now, her friends knew she was up for anything. One of them sent a message saying NASA was recruiting six people to live for four months in HI-SEAS, a Mars simulation habitat on a Hawaiian volcano, and she should apply. Cue initial doubts overcome by adventurousness. She was accepted, becoming the educational outreach officer, videographer and photographer. NASA’s goal was to assess cooking strategies for missions to Mars. As the resident foodie, Proctor held a public recipe contest and hosted a YouTube cooking show, Meals for Mars. Her cookbook transfers lessons from “space travel” – cooking creatively with limited, shelf-stable, sustainable ingredients – to terrestrial kitchens. Living in cramped quarters, severed from SIM cards and (often) sunlight, and venturing across lava fields in spacesuits, Proctor and the diverse crew learned to navigate extreme conditions and get along well in confined space.
Later, a crewmate friend sent her a tweet saying the TV show Genius by Stephen Hawking was recruiting, and she should apply. Proctor doubted she’d be accepted because she was outside the desired age range, but she applied and was cast in an episode about extraterrestrials. That led to her starring on the Science Channel’s Strange Evidence, plus two upcoming (and still secret) shows. She’s starting to realize her dream of being “the black female version of Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
Proctor also went on two programs for adventurous teachers – a trek to northern Alaska and a fishing boat trip in the Gulf of Alaska. In 2019, she’ll shiver through the Antarctic winter on a ship drilling ice to measure the impact of climate change. And last summer, she lived for two weeks in a lunar simulation in Poland.
As wide-ranging as her journeys seem, they’re all about chasing space and bringing the lessons of space travel to Earth: pushing beyond our comfort zones, living sustainably on limited resources and connecting with each other as “one giant crew on Starship Earth,” she says. “And [the question is], can we learn to get along and have compassion for each other and care about the environment and everything that comes with this starship of ours?”
Tibetan Tsampa Porridge
This Meals for Mars recipe was a popular breakfast for Proctor’s Mars simulation crew. A staple among Himalayan nomads, tsampa (roasted barley flour) is delicious and long-lasting, so it’s perfect for astronauts.
2 cups tsampa (greathimalayafoods.com)
8 cups milk
4 tsp. butter
Optional toppings: dried apricots; freeze-dried raspberries, blueberries, bananas or apples
Pour milk and butter into a pot and bring to a boil. Immediately set heat to low, making sure milk does not boil over. Whisk tsampa into milk until creamy, about 4-5 minutes. Serve topped with fruits, honey and/or brown sugar.