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Changing what an astronaut should look like

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"What do astronauts look like?"

Lisa Alcindor, who lives in northern Virginia, has hopes of becoming an astronaut (Photograph courtesy of Lisa Alcindor)

That question sits at the top of the Instagram page that Lisa Alcindor, an aspiring astronaut, created. Next to it, a photograph shows a figure hidden beneath a darkened helmet, allowing the mind for a moment to imagine the characteristics of the person wearing it and consider its own notions of what a space traveller looks like.

Is it a man or a woman? Is it someone who is tall or short? It is a person who seems more comfortable sitting in a laboratory or dancing at a party?

Whatever image a person conjures, it probably does not match the one that a quick downward scroll of the page reveals. The photos of Alcindor show a young, striking Black woman whose long lashes reach towards the front of that helmet when she has it on.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

They show a woman who one day models a bubblegum-coloured suit with a leopard-print blouse and on another day sits grinning in front of a rocket engine.

In one photo, she holds up a gold-adorned wrist and balances on her hand a complex-looking piece of machinery. The words next to it read, "When you hold a $2 million satellite in the palm of your hand."

Alcindor, who is 34 and lives in northern Virginia, has not yet flown to space. But she is trying hard to get there, and in the process, she is trying to change how people think of astronauts — and themselves.

“My goal is to show people that they truly are limitless,” she says when we talk on a recent afternoon.

Lately, conversations about space travel have orbited around the names of White male billionaires. On July 20, Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon and owns The Washington Post, rocketed beyond the edge of space in the New Shepard spacecraft developed by his Blue Origin company. That endeavour, which was watched by people across the nation, came nine days after Richard Branson took a similar suborbital space flight on Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22.

“Best day ever,” Bezos said after his flight.

“The experience of a lifetime,” Branson said during his.

Both flights marked milestones in a space race that had already seen Elon Musk’s SpaceX fly people to the International Space Station.

For anyone interested in space travel, those endeavours have been fascinating to witness. They have also made space travel feel a distant dream for anyone who doesn’t have deep pockets. In an auction for a seat on Bezos’s flight, the top bidder offered $28 million. When that person had to postpone, another winning bid landed an 18-year-old from a wealthy family on the flight instead.

Alcindor’s path has not been paved with the same bricks. She is someone who is trying to use her ordinary means to reach extraordinary heights — literally. And through social media, she is taking people on the journey with her.

“It was a childhood dream of mine to go to space so immma just live vicariously through your ig,” one person wrote on her page.

“We want to write a children's book about you. You are a living legend!” wrote another.

“You are goals,” wrote yet another. “I show my daughter your page . . . black girl magic.”

Photos on the page show Alcindor learning to scuba dive, standing next to the late physicist Freeman Dyson and flying a helicopter — all experiences she sees as helping her towards her ultimate goal.

“Being a pilot, it takes a different level of meditation,” Alcindor says. “My first flight lesson, I almost fainted. I’m Black and I almost turned pink. You feel everything. The plane is so light that you feel the fuel when it’s dissipating.”

It would have been easy to give up, she says, but she now has 26 hours of flight time.

“I was like, ʽI got to finish this, because that’s what astronauts do,’” she says.

When Alcindor talks, it can be hard to keep up with everything she says. She can go from describing why she loves to dance in the styles of jazz and ballet to explaining how to perform a saltwater corrosion test on aviation metals.

Her résumé shows that the PhD candidate has a bachelor’s degree in economics and works at the Pentagon as a contractor. Before that, it shows, she held a contracting job that involved designing body armour at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Her résumé also details her work with Nasa on a programme involving “the next-generation main rocket propulsion system”.

For a while, Alcindor says, she felt torn between her artistic interests and her work. She questioned how much she could be herself in jobs where not many co-workers were young, Black or women. During her time with Nasa, she says, people in her dance classes didn’t know she spent her days talking about rockets and the people at her work had no idea she had dance shoes in her car.

Then she saw the movie Hidden Figures, which shows the vital roles Black women at Nasa played during the early years of the country’s space programme. The movie is set in the past, but Alcindor saw her present self in it. She even recognised some of the machinery depicted.

She credits the movie with sparking her desire to explore space and helping her embrace all parts of herself: her flair for fashion, her talent for singing — a skill that got her to Hollywood Week on American Idol — and her passion for her work.

“The more I sat in my woman-ness, the more I was a better leader,” she says.

She also learnt that being a woman wasn’t a detriment to her mission — at least not physically. The thickness of her hips makes her more aerodynamic, she says, and a woman can still bear children after travelling to space. She recalls asking astronaut Susan Helms that question after rushing to an event to hear the astronaut speak. Alcindor says becoming a mother one day and showing what mothers can achieve are important to her.

Alcindor has applied to Space for Humanity’s Citizen Astronaut Programme, and a post on her Instagram page shows she has made it to a second round. She spent recent days going over her application again to make sure it fully reflects her. In one part, she had to decide whether she wanted to represent the United States or Haiti, both of which are part of her identity.

The non-profit has not yet sent a crew into space but hopes to be able to share a schedule later this year, executive director Rachel Lyons said in an e-mail. So far, the organisation has received about 4,000 applications.

“We are looking for people who are leaders in their community,” Lyons said. “People who have a commitment to positively impacting our world. We’re passionate about the Overview Effect: the cognitive shift that occurs when astronauts view our Earth from space, as a small, interconnected, fragile, floating blue ball of life in an infinite universe.

“These astronauts gain an understanding of the miraculousness of life, and the uniqueness of our existence,” Lyons added. “They recognise that, as humans, our commonalities far outweigh our differences. They often return with a call to action around taking care of our planet and taking care of each other.”

There is, of course, no telling whether the organisation will pick Alcindor for the programme or whether she will have to find another way to reach the stars. Her journey has not been without challenges. Growing up in Miami and attending school next to a public-housing project, she never knew if her family were broke or had money, she says. But in trying to make herself a better candidate for space travel, her bills have mounted. (I learnt about her when I happened to see a GoFundMe page she created to pay for the remaining hours of flight time she needs for her pilot's licence.)

But she is adamant that she will not give up. She knows people are watching her and seeing themselves. Black girls. Women in male-dominated fields. People who dropped a dream before they could pursue it. She says she hopes to reach all of them and show them that they are limitless.

“What you thought you were best at might be because you haven’t had the opportunity to explore yourself,” she says. “I hope someone who's never picked up the piano will pick it up and someone who’s never flown before will do a discovery flight.”

A goal she set early on was to meet four astronauts, and she has. One of them is pictured on her Instagram page.

The photo shows Alcindor standing next to Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel to space. In large letters across the image are the words “What do ASTRONAUTS look like?”

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

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Published August 30, 2021 at 7:59 am (Updated August 29, 2021 at 12:54 pm)

Changing what an astronaut should look like

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