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Simulated space mission training leads to real orbital flight for ASU instructor


portrait of Arizona State University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute instructor Sian Proctor

Sian Proctor, an instructor at ASU's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, is set to go into orbit this fall aboard a SpaceX spacecraft. Photo courtesy of SpaceX

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April 14, 2021

Sian Proctor is preparing to launch into space this fall, which makes complete sense. It’s a trip she’s figuratively been training for her entire career.

Proctor, an instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Arizona State University, is among four passengers set to go into orbit this fall on a private flight on SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission.

The ASU alumna has been teaching older adults about planetary geology – this one’s and Mars’ – through the institute since 2016. She holds two graduate degrees from ASU, including a Master of Science in geology and a PhD in science education. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is based at the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

What’s more, her class titles reflect her personal experiences. A series called “Overboard” features subtopics such as “A NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Teacher at Sea…” and “Life Below the Surface.” Others communicate her involvement with space: “Searching for E.T.: My ‘Genius by Stephen Hawking’ Experience,” “Mars on Earth: Surviving in a NASA Mars Simulation” and “Reach for the Stars: Exploring Space Up-Close.”

Proctor is an analog astronaut, meaning one who engages in various activities under conditions that simulate being in space. She also participated in four analog missions, including the all-female Sensoria Mars 2020 mission, held at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (Hi-SEAS) Habitat. Her motto is “Space2Inspire,” encouraging people to use their unique strengths and passions to inspire others. She is also an artist who created Space2Inspire Art to encourage conversations about creating what she calls a J.E.D.I. space (a just, equitable, diverse and inclusive space) for humanity.

Sally Underwood, coordinator at the Watts College-based Partnership for Community Development at the ASU's West Campus, remembers watching Proctor in a documentary about Arizona’s geology. Proctor has been teaching geoscience at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix for the past 20 years.

“My first thought was that she would make a terrific Osher instructor,” Underwood said. “Sian enthusiastically agreed, and that’s how her relationship with OLLI at ASU began.”

Proctor quickly became a “fan favorite” among students, Underwood said.

“She was so engaging and her experiences were remarkable and unique. She is enthusiastic and unstoppable. Each time she taught, she had taken on a new challenge, whether it be as a NOAA Teacher at Sea, a participant on ‘Genius by Stephen Hawking,’ or the NASA-sponsored Mars simulation,” Underwood said. “Through each experience, she taught in a way that made you feel you were right by her side on a wild adventure. She always left us wondering, ‘What’s next?’ The fact that she was selected for this flight should be no surprise to any fan of Sian’s – she was destined to be in the stars.”

For more about Proctor, see this feature in The Arizona Republic.

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