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Inspiration4 astronaut Sian Proctor reflects on historic SpaceX spaceflight experience

Sian Proctor served as the pilot for the private SpaceX mission Inspiration4.
Sian Proctor served as the pilot for the private SpaceX mission Inspiration4. (Image credit: SpaceX)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Sian Proctor, the pilot for SpaceX's historic Inspiration4 mission, is on cloud 9 after returning from her epic three-day-long spaceflight. Joined by Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arcenauex, and Chris Sembroski, the quartet made up the crew for the first all-civilian human spaceflight mission, called Inspiration4

Proctor and the rest of the crew launched on Sept. 15 from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Strapped inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, they blasted off atop a used Falcon 9 rocket on a flight that circled the Earth for three days before splashing down. She spoke with Space.com to talk about the mission and just how much fun flying in space really is. 

"The launch was incredible," Proctor told Space.com after returning to Earth. "I was just amazed by it."

"Everyone told me that it was one of the prettiest launches they've seen but sitting in the Dragon and hearing all the sounds it made, it was just incredible." 

Related: Inspiration4: SpaceX's historic private spaceflight in photos

Preparing to launch

The Inspiration4 crew was selected as part of a massive fundraising effort benefiting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The mission surpassed its initial goal of $200 million raised for the research institute. Isaacman purchased the flight from SpaceX, donating one of the seats to a frontline worker at St. Jude (Arceneaux, a physician assistant at the hospital), while the two remaining seats were awarded as part of a contest to help raise millions for the organization.

Once selected, the crew of four went through approximately six months of training before strapping into their Dragon spacecraft and blasting off into orbit. Despite the seemingly short time frame, Proctor said that SpaceX prepared the crew well for what to expect on their flight. 

The crew was put through a gauntlet of training exercises, including survival training on Mt. Rainier, fighter jet training, a centrifuge and many hours in the SpaceX Dragon simulator. 

Proctor shared that her spaceflight was on par with her training. "SpaceX did a good job preparing us," she said, "but nothing compares to the actual flight." 

"There's nothing like blasting through the atmosphere, and when you're coming back to Earth, well that's a whole other level of excitement." 

According to Proctor, the most intense parts of the mission were launch and landing, and it was quite an experience to go from weightlessness to full gravity as the capsule made its way back to Earth. Fortunately, all of the different training experiences gave the crew an idea of what the G forces would feel like at various points of the flight. 

When asked if anyone got physically sick during the flight, either on the way to space or during landing, Proctor was happy to report that no one on the crew got sick and everyone was all smiles and cheers when the parachutes deployed prior to splashing down.

However, while Proctor did reveal that she did feel a bit congested (which is not uncommon for astronauts once they reach microgravity) during the first two days in space, having Arceneaux, who works as a physician assistant at St. Jude, as the crew's medical officer made all the difference. "She's a great crew member," Proctor said. "She was able to help both Chris and myself when we first got in orbit so that we didn't actually get sick."

Living in space

The interior of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule is roughly the size of a minivan, which makes for close quarters when four people have to live inside of it for several days. Despite its size, however, Proctor said that the capsule didn't feel too cramped, and she even described it as "surprisingly spacious".

"We were used to being together in a small space and, you know, we get along really well," Proctor said. "So the bulk of it was negotiating space to some extent and learning to move around each other in zero gravity."

"It also helped that we did a 30-hour sim [simulation] beforehand," she added.

Each of the Inspiration4 crew members was able to pick out a few of the foods they would eat while in orbit, though Proctor wasn't as hungry as she anticipated. "Going to space is a lot like camping, you think you're going to be so hungry and then you're not," she said. One of the dishes Proctor selected was cold pizza, but her favorite meal turned out to be a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwich on gluten-free bread. 

"Whoever made that sandwich, it was fantastic," she said. "I kind of enjoyed that more than the pizza." 

She added some jalapeno to the pizza because, like most space travelers, Proctor wanted something spicy to jazz it up. (Astronauts tend to prefer spicier foods in space because while in zero gravity, fluids collect in their heads and they are a bit congested much like if they had a cold here on Earth.)  "The pizza was good, but that BLT was just fantastic."

Proctor knows a thing or two about space food. Prior to her debut as an astronaut with Inspiration4, Proctor completed a number of analog space missions, or simulated space missions, and believes that sustainable food practices (like those used in spaceflight as well as analog missions) can help reduce food waste here on Earth. 

"When we solve for space, we solve for Earth," she said. 

One of the biggest challenges Proctor noted was navigating zero gravity and realizing that everything takes a bit longer than it does here on Earth. In space, there's also the additional challenge of making sure that your tools and other objects don't float away. 

"It's a lot of waste management," Proctor said (not to be confused with the toilet waste). "Making sure that things are secured and don't end up where they shouldn't be."

Security went beyond tools, to also include the astronauts themselves, especially at bedtime. When it came time to sleep, Proctor said that the crew would strap themselves into their seats. But she soon discovered an even better location: the cargo area below the seats. "I was like, well, I'm just going to slide down under the cargo bay because I could lay completely flat out and there's only room for one person to do that," she said. 

Spaceflight challenges

Following the mission, SpaceX officials revealed that there was an issue with the Crew Dragon's onboard toilet, which is located on the craft's ceiling, near the nose cone where the cupola window is. At a post-splashdown news conference, Benji Reed, SpaceX's Director of Crew Mission Management did mention that there was an issue with the toilet's suction fan — a critical component of the facility. (In space there's no gravity to pull waste down and away, so fans are needed to suck waste material into the toilet.)

An alarm was triggered at some point during the flight, indicating that there was something amiss with the waste management system. The crew was able to troubleshoot it, even through multiple communications blackouts, and luckily, there was never an Apollo 10 scenario (where fecal matter was reported to be floating through the cabin).

Proctor wouldn't confirm if any of the crew members boldly went number two in space despite the toilet troubles, but she did say that using the bathroom facilities was tricky. She also shared that this scenario proved how their months of training paid off while highlighting how well the crew worked together. 

Big blue marble

Inspiration4's Crew Dragon capsule — named "Resilience" by the Crew-1 astronauts that first launched aboard the craft back in November 2020 — received a pretty significant upgrade prior to making its second trip to orbit. 

Since the mission was not docking with the International Space Station (ISS), engineers at SpaceX decided to remove the craft's docking adapter, and install in its place a massive dome window. Called a cupola, the windowed dome is a replica of the iconic windows on the ISS. 

The crew was speechless the first time the Dragon's nose cone opened and they floated up into the cupola. "It was the most amazing experience of my life," Proctor said. "I had no idea that we'd be able to see the entire Earth and it was stunningly beautiful."

"It was truly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," she added. "Seeing the moon rise from that perspective and seeing the swirl of our planet, it's like moving art — just beautiful."

Proctor added that music was a huge part of the crew's experience in orbit, with special songs playing at different points of the mission. For instance, when the crew opened the nose cone, exposing the cupola window to space, they did so to the theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

"I perfectly timed it so when the hatch opened, there was space," she said. "Everyone loved it."

At various other points of the mission, they played other well-known sci-fi theme songs from films like "Star Wars" and other sci-fi franchises. Proctor also said that each crew member chose a playlist and they had one as a group. Everyone shared their personal choices with the rest of the crew.

"Music was a bond, and a huge part of the experience for us," she said.

More: Inspiration4 SpaceX mission carrying indie-pop song to orbit

Art in space

Proctor won her seat on Inspiration4 as part of an online store that sold poetry and art in order to benefit St. Jude. As such, she brought her own art supplies with her to draw and paint with watercolor while in orbit. Engineers designed her a special container that held her brushes that would enable her to paint in space while also navigating how water functions in the absence of gravity. 

"The brushes worked amazingly, and painting in space isn't very different from painting on Earth," she said. 

She also took a very special piece of cargo along with her: a piece of art that fellow private space traveler Richard Garriott took down in the Mariana trench. (NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski also took the artwork to the Titanic wreckage.) This means that this artwork has now been to both the deepest part of the ocean and outer space. Proctor says that the artwork will be auctioned off and the proceeds will benefit St. Jude. 

"It's just a really unique piece," she said. "I feel very fortunate to have had that experience to be able to take that piece, along with my art, to space with me. That's just awesome."

Along with art, Proctor and the crew brought along a vast mix of music, personal items and things that they intend to auction off for St. Jude. 

"There are three things that have really influenced me: Harry Potter, Star Wars and Star Trek," Proctor said, "so one of the things I brought with me was a charm bracelet with charms from all three."

Proctor added that the whole crew are huge Harry Potter fans, with her and Isaacman belonging to house Gryffindor, while Arceneaux and Sembroski are both Hufflepuffs. 

Along with the charm bracelet, Proctor said she brought some comic books with her as well as Star Wars trading cards. When asked which was her favorite, Star Trek or Star Wars, she said that she's a total Trekkie and would rather trek across the galaxy than fight her way. 

From one Falcon to another

Following their epic space mission, the Inspiration4 crew got some downtime with family and friends. For Proctor, that included trips to immerse herself in some of her favorite fandoms. 

With her family, Proctor was able to visit both Galaxy's Edge at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios' Wizarding World of Harry Potter. While there, she was able to conjure up some spells with her favorite witches and wizards and also try her hand at piloting a different Falcon — the Millennium Falcon. 

Additionally, Proctor and the rest of her Inspiration4 crewmates were able to see the Falcon 9 first stage booster that ferried them into space once back on Earth. After landing on the drone ship, "Just Read the Instructions," the massive booster returned to port where it would be offloaded and prepared to fly again. 

While the Falcon 9 was at the SpaceX docks, Proctor, Isaacman, Arceneaux and Sembroki were able to stand on the deck of the drone ship and get one last look at their rocket. One thing that really surprised Proctor was the fact that the crew's names were still visible. (The crewmates each wrote their names in the soot on the booster prior to launch.)

"It was pretty cool to see our booster," Proctor said. "To see that it made it back with no problems and then to visit it and see our names still there, that was crazy cool. I would have thought it'd be covered up with a fresh layer of soot."

Achieving her dream

Proctor is a child of the Apollo era; her father worked at a tracking station in Guam that was responsible for tracking the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. As such, she's dreamt about going to space for her entire life. 

That dream led her to apply for NASA's astronaut program in 1999, where she made it to the final round before being cut. At that point, she thought she'd never go to space. But then she received the call of a lifetime. 

Her father passed away before she made it to space, but Proctor said he'd be incredibly proud and excited. "He would have been so thrilled," she said, "he would have loved every moment of this experience." 

Proctor shared that one of her father's friends and co-workers from Guam lives in Florida now and was able to attend the launch. "He was there when Neil Armstrong came to visit, and he was here when I went to space." 

"It was really nice to see this from his perspective, and knowing he was one of my dad's good friends," she added. "It made me so happy."

What's next

Now that she’s back on Earth, Proctor says she is going to take some time to reflect on her days in space and focus on her art. 

She says she would love to go back to space someday, but for now she plans on soaking up the incredible experience and sharing it with the world through her art and poetry. 

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