Sian Proctor: The first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft

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Sian Proctor doesn’t give up—it was just a matter of time before she achieved her goal of flying into orbit. Bitten by the spaceflight bug at an early age, the 51-year-old geoscientist, artist, and airplane pilot recently became the first Black woman in history to pilot a spacecraft.
Proctor’s dad had helped guide the Apollo missions in orbit from NASA’s tracking station on Guam—earning a personal thank-you from Neil Armstrong and a house full of NASA memorabilia. Like Armstrong, Proctor wanted to be an astronaut. So, she earned a Ph.D. as well as her pilot’s license and SCUBA certification, skills common among astronaut candidates.

In 2009, Proctor made it to the final round of NASA’s competitive astronaut selection process. But when NASA rejected her candidacy, it seemed her dreams of visiting space might not come true. Instead she opted for an analog mission, and in 2013 she spent four months as a crew member in a simulated Mars habitat in Hawaii.

Now Proctor has not only made it to orbit, she has made history. She won her seat on the all-private Inspiration4 mission by impressing a panel of judges with her artistry, her panache, and her efforts to promote what she calls JEDI space—a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive vision of space exploration for humanity.

“There have been so few of us who’ve even gone to space,” Proctor says of the Black community. “I just think, wow, how do we broaden access and inspire others so that more will follow?”

For three days in September, Proctor and her crewmates orbited Earth in a SpaceX Dragon capsule and helped raise more than $200 million for Memphis-based St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Also aboard were mission commander Jared Isaacman, who bankrolled the flight; mission specialist Chris Sembroski, who won his seat in a raffle; and medical officer Hayley Arceneaux, a childhood cancer survivor. They listened to some music, did some science, and marveled at the bright white sun while enduring the stressful, extreme environment of spaceflight.