Former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman discusses what Inspiration4 could mean for the future of space travel.
The wonderful thing: Stories from the space station / brigade advertising
Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson traveled to and from the edge of space earlier this year, but last week the term “amateur astronaut” officially got a new meaning. Four “everyday people” returned safely from a three-day mission in orbit on Saturday.
The crew consisted of a medical assistant, a businessman, a data engineer and a geology professor. Correctly. There were no professional astronauts aboard the SpaceX ship, which soared 575 kilometers above our planet – about 100 miles higher than the International Space Station.
And while the view from the civilians was beautiful, the breathtaking photos they took from their 360-degree dome could represent far more than a future full of space travel. They capture four people symbolizing this vision in a way that Bezos and Branson … well, they can’t.
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“There is more than one way to space, there is more than one way to explore – and one of these ways is for you,” former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman told me on Thursday via Zoom, emphasizing the message that the Inspiration4- Mission radiates.
Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who funded the mission, purposely selected three civilian astronauts, each representing something powerful.
Medical officer Hayley Arceneaux is a cancer survivor and, at 29, the youngest American to visit space. Engineer Christopher Sembroski is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and Sian Proctor, a community college professor from Tempe, Arizona, is the fourth African American woman to live under the stars.
“It makes me say she’s fourth,” said Coleman, who has traveled to space three times in her career. “The fact that that number could be four, not 40 or 400.”
The Inspiration4 crew from left to right: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux.
Coincidentally, SpaceX launched just in time for the release of a new documentary that Coleman plays in The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station. It can be viewed on streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video and iTunes.
The groundbreaking mission, the intimate film, and Coleman himself offer a special memory.
Space belongs to all of us.
‘Maybe this could be me ‘
In her iconic blue NASA uniform and sitting on a couch in front of a minimalist beige painting, Coleman is overflowing with empathy, thoughtfulness and nostalgia as she talks about her own experience as an astronaut and where space exploration stands today.
The 60-year-old astronaut vividly remembers the first time it occurred to her that she might visit space.
It was when Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was speaking at her college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ride’s influence was so strong that she might as well have spoken to Coleman directly.
“I remember the auditorium seat I was sitting in,” said Coleman. “But most of all, I remember how it felt to look at her and listen to her talk and realize that it was important that she was a scientist, a well-educated one and one who seemed constantly curious.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, maybe it could be me.'”
In fact, Coleman graduated from MIT with a degree in chemistry, joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, and did his PhD. in Polymer Science and Engineering from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
In 1992 NASA selected her to join the agency.
It is noteworthy that for one of her three missions into space she had to live on the ISS for six months, longer than all of Ride’s missions combined.
Today, a universal interest in space travel is growing along with the sudden appearance of nontraditional astronauts into orbit. But we could pause to consider who is offering the person sitting in Coleman’s auditorium seat the same “aha” moment that Ride delivered.
While Bezos and Branson have shown that private organizations can indeed get into space, they’re both billionaires, they’re both men, and neither is a minority. The Inspiration4 crew members tell a different story.
“When you think of the billions of people here on earth, each of them could find something that makes them think, ‘I see myself in them – just these four,'” says Coleman.
Space exploration and equal representation
“It is very important to me that a young girl or a minority can see themselves in space,” says Coleman, speaking as a woman who says that she herself experienced unfair checks during her training as an astronaut. A frequently asked question was, “Did you even mind leaving your family on earth?”
“Of course I have,” she said. “And at the same time, it’s a great disservice to our astronauts, who really took care of it.”
She laughed lovingly at what her son sometimes called her during her apprenticeship in Russia and asked age-old questions like: “Mom, my black jeans, where are they?” Coleman stresses that motherhood does not encompass her whole identity – contrary to what subtly nurtured the public about astronaut wives.
For example, in the 2000s, she was asked to consult a film about the ISS, a film with a cast list that did not include women or minorities.
“It was like an emergency to me,” said Coleman. “We’re going to be making a movie in 2000 or so about what it’s like to live in space, and there isn’t a single person in the cast who isn’t white.”
“What about the 9-year-old girl who sits at home and looks at this and thinks how cool it is – but there’s a little message inside that says, ‘That’s probably not you, by the way,'” she noted. In contrast, Coleman trained Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock in 2013 to help her play the lead role of an astronaut in Alfonso Cuarón’s science fiction film Gravity.
Or take spacesuit sizes. At one point, Coleman explained, NASA didn’t have enough resources to make every size, so they eliminated small and extra large. Later they padded extra large suits – but not small. “It actually left out eight out of 20-something women who wouldn’t fit that spacesuit on paper,” Coleman said. She was one of them.
The signature bulky white suits are required to keep astronauts alive outside of the ISS, which means these women have been preventively excluded from the spacewalk candidate pool.
Coleman calls The Wonderful an exquisite film due to the involvement of international astronauts, men and women, and suggests that Inspiration4 draws on key depictions of diversity as well.
A next step for space travel is “to find a way to help the people who design and make spacesuits for the future to understand that people like me contribute a lot to the spacewalk.”
I have interpreted their use of spacesuits in the broadest and most metaphorical sense.
Since commercial space travel is just beginning, humanity has the opportunity to get its nuances of equal representation right.
Today Arceneaux, back from space, is the first person in history to travel there with a prosthesis. During the training, she wrote to her orthopedic surgeon that the prosthesis in her thigh can withstand extreme forces – as evidenced by flying a fighter jet.
The earth is our ship. Space is our home
In April 2019 Coleman gave a Ted Talk: “What it’s like to live on the International Space Station.” It ended with the line: “The earth is our ship. Space is our home.”
I get chills every time I think about it.
As humans, we tend to reject the notion of space. It’s hard to grasp a place measured in billions and billions of lives when we limit ourselves from physics to our textbooks – especially without conjuring up a few existential questions for ourselves.
But whether you like it or not, space is our home.
Married to artist Josh Simpson, who makes glass art inspired by space and planets, Coleman smiles and recalls how in space she wished he were there to see the earth through her lens. That way he could recreate it.
Former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman and husband Josh Simpson.
“When I look at my camera I think, ‘Wow, it just doesn’t capture what it feels like to see this sunset,'” she said. “It’s about the same when you look down at the earth … at that curved edge. There are just so many colors of blue – I can’t describe it. “
I’ve watched dozens of YouTube videos and tried to understand the difference. What does the earth really look like from space without particles blocking our view, in a vacuum and with a background out of nowhere?
I need to know.
But my inability to truly understand – and the astronauts’ difficulty in explaining the grandeur of the earth from above – sheds light on another type of representation that space travel could benefit from: the diversity of thought. Artists, for example, have perspectives that scientists lack.
“Something that is essential to our planet right now is empowering the problem solvers of the future,” says Coleman.
In a certain way, Inspiration4 is on the right track for this as well. Isaacman devoted much of the mission’s public relations work to raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Arceneaux was a former patient and now works as a medical assistant.
“It’s not just a space mission. It’s an earth mission,” Coleman said. “It’s a charity mission, it’s a mission for children, and it’s a mission to get more people into space.”
“More waves will come from the events that set them in motion.”