Troy Lee Hud­son is the gay as­tro­physi­cist in­stru­men­tal in NASA’s re­cent InSight Mars land­ing, and a proud mem­ber of the leather com­mu­nity. He tells DNA about his jour­ney to Mars!

DNA Magazine - - FEATURE - In­ter­view by Marc An­drews Pho­tog­ra­phy by Gabriel Gold­berg

AT FIRST glance Troy Lee Hud­son seems like your typ­i­cal hot, older dude – dare we say daddy – with a sharp beard, pumped mus­cles and a killer smile. He has a lit­tle some­thing ex­tra to daz­zle you with, though. He’s also an as­tro­physi­cist at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory (JPL), the world’s lead­ing cen­tre for ro­botic ex­plo­ration of the so­lar sys­tem.

As an openly gay sci­en­tist at the top of his field, Troy is well aware he’s still some­thing of a rar­ity.

“For me, my role mod­els in sci­ence and my role mod­els as LGBT peo­ple have al­ways been sep­a­rate,” he ex­plained to DNA in his home­town of Los An­ge­les. “That’s why I’m thrilled to have an op­por­tu­nity to fill that gap; to show peo­ple that this com­bi­na­tion of sex­u­al­ity and ca­reer is not only pos­si­ble, but is, in fact, quite com­mon.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, for someone who has just been in­volved in help­ing the InSight Mars Lan­der mis­sion suc­cess­fully land a rover on the red planet at the end of 2018, Troy says the best thing about his day job is “be­ing on Mars!”

DNA: You’re an as­tro­physi­cist for NASA based in Cal­i­for­nia. When you were grow­ing up was this the job you al­ways wanted to do? Troy: I’ve al­ways wanted to work in space. Had I the chance, I’d gladly do what I do from or­bit. My for­ma­tive years co­in­cided with the first Golden Age of sci­en­tific space ex­plo­ration. Vik­ings 1 and 2 had landed on Mars and pro­vided us with our first global pic­ture of the red planet; the Voy­ager space­craft be­gan its grand tour right around the time I was born; the first Space Shut­tle launched in 1980, and Carl Sa­gan’s Cos­mos se­ries pre­miered on TV that same year.

What were you like as a kid?

Even though I may not have en­vi­sioned pre­cisely this job de­scrip­tion, when I was a kid I al­ways loved space, plan­ets, rocks and sci­ence. I’ve al­ways known that I could some­how make a ca­reer of study­ing those things. It was around Voy­ager 2’s en­counter with Uranus in 1986 that I first heard of JPL, but it wasn’t un­til later, around the end of my un­der­grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion in 2000, that I re­alised plan­e­tary sci­ence could be my day job.

When did you and space first be­come best bud­dies?

When I went to Space Camp in 1996 I dis­cov­ered a com­mu­nity of young peo­ple who shared my pas­sion for space. That gave me a real sense of be­long­ing in the world even though it had noth­ing to do with my sex­u­al­ity. For those grow­ing up to­day, find­ing any com­mu­nity, be it sci­ence or art or games or spir­i­tual pur­suits, can help with the dif­fi­culty of be­ing LGBT in a less-than-ac­cept­ing world. It can also set you up for suc­cess later in life by fos­ter­ing tal­ents and strengths that will help you ex­cel in your cho­sen field. What was your com­ing out like?

I grew up in East Texas in the ’80s and ’90s –not ex­actly an easy time or place to be gay. In a way, I was lucky. I never got teased about be­ing gay. I got teased for be­ing “the smart kid”, “the nerd”, and “the band geek”. I told a few close friends near the end of high school I was gay, but I re­ally count Jan­u­ary 1999 as my com­ing out – when I said, “I’m gay!” to my fra­ter­nity broth­ers at our an­nual re­treat. I was pleas­antly sur­prised at the amount of sup­port we re­ceived – two other broth­ers came out then, too. Since then, it’s been no se­cret in any facet of my life, though in my pro­fes­sional life it usu­ally isn’t the first thing peo­ple learn about me.

Did you have any men­tors, or LGBT role mod­els along the way?

I’ve had many pro­fes­sional men­tors, pro­fes­sors, and col­leagues who I ad­mire and with whom I’ve devel­oped friend­ships. I have learned both through be­ing in­structed and by watch­ing how oth­ers op­er­ate, al­though if any of them were or are LGBT, I’m not aware of it. I can say defini­tively I never had any LGBT role mod­els in the sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing fields, though I do now have many col­leagues at JPL, in both ju­nior and se­nior po­si­tions, who are LGBT. There were two peo­ple, pro­fes­sors at Cal­tech, who were out when I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent there. They showed me that it wasn’t some­thing they had to hide. I’m sure this had at least a sub­con­scious in­flu­ence on me, and my de­ci­sions, not to hide my­self.

Most peo­ple would be hard pressed to name a sci­en­tist if asked. Maybe you’d get Stephen Hawk­ing, Ein­stein or Carl Sa­gan, but you’d get lit­er­ally zero re­sponse if you asked a mem­ber of the gen­eral pub­lic to name a gay or les­bian sci­en­tist or en­gi­neer. Our com­mu­nity has made great strides in our pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity and per­cep­tion in the past decades and I’m in­cred­i­bly grate­ful for the pi­o­neers who took risks, came out, and fought (and are fight­ing) for our rights, like Ellen De­Generes’ com­ing out on the cover of Time mag­a­zine in 1997. See­ing a suc­cess­ful LGBT pro­fes­sional in any field used to be a ex­cep­tion, now it’s com­mon in many ar­eas of hu­man en­deav­our.

I wore the Pride pin the day the Phoenix Lan­der touched down on Mars.

When did you first start work with NASA?

I started at JPL in May of 2008, one week af­ter de­fend­ing my doc­toral the­sis at Cal­tech. That was three weeks be­fore the Phoenix Lan­der ar­rived in the north­ern re­gions of Mars. I was part of an in­stru­ment team on Phoenix, get­ting first looks at the data that came down from the lan­der, and it was thrilling to be right in the midst of a real, op­er­at­ing flight mis­sion. Though be­cause I was so new to the project, I wasn’t nearly as emo­tion­ally in­vested in that mis­sion as I am now in InSight.

You wear a Pride pin on cer­tain days at work at NASA. Why do you feel that’s im­por­tant? About ten years ago, I started wear­ing the Pride pin that I wore on the day the Phoenix Lan­der touched down on Mars when­ever I rep­re­sented my­self out­side of JPL. I don’t wear it ev­ery day at work, but I al­ways wear it when­ever I give a pub­lic talk, sci­en­tific lec­ture or tele­vi­sion in­ter­view or when I meet with col­leagues from uni­ver­si­ties and other NASA cen­tres. It’s my way of combating LGBTQIA in­vis­i­bil­ity and I en­cour­age oth­ers in STEM fields (Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy, En­gi­neer­ing and Math­e­mat­ics) to do like­wise. We are, af­ter all, ev­ery­where, but if someone is an as­pir­ing sci­en­tist or en­gi­neer who is LGBT, they need to see that they’re not an anom­aly. There are many oth­ers like them. We hear you also have ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with ex­trater­res­tri­als?

For a time I man­aged JPL’s Ex­trater­res­trial Ma­te­ri­als Sim­u­la­tion Lab­o­ra­tory (EMSiL), which cre­ates, cu­rates and runs tests us­ing rocks, soils and syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als that ap­prox­i­mate the prop­er­ties of solid bod­ies like the Moon, Mars, as­ter­oids and comets. I’ve also been the sci­en­tific direc­tor or prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor on a high-al­ti­tude bal­loon mis­sion called AS­TRA where we tested pro­to­type Marssur­face in­stru­ments in Earth’s strato­sphere, 30km above the ground. The con­di­tions there are sim­i­lar in many en­gi­neer­ing-rel­e­vant ways to Mars’ sur­face. I started work­ing on InSight when it was just a pro­posal to NASA’s dis­cov­ery pro­gram in 2009 and it’s been my main gig since around 2011.

What’s the most ex­cit­ing thing about your job?

Be­ing on Mars! I mean, re­ally, it doesn’t get much more ex­cit­ing than just know­ing that. To know that the de­vices I’ve worked on for nearly a decade have slipped the bonds of Earth and are now poised to teach us some­thing new about our uni­verse from the sur­face of an­other planet is al­most un­ut­ter­ably thrilling. Hon­estly, this is so much a part of who I am that I’ve of­ten won­dered why every­one doesn’t want to study space. I love the sci­ence we’re do­ing, but even more so I love the chal­lenge of de­sign­ing and build­ing de­vices to make the mea­sure­ments that get us the data to do the sci­ence. It’s the most fun kind of prob­lem to solve. The blend of sci­en­tific knowl­edge and en­gi­neer­ing skill re­quired to achieve that is highly val­ued and still some­what rare and it fits me per­fectly. Tell us about watch­ing the Mars InSight land­ing re­cently.

I wasn’t just watch­ing it, I was feel­ing it! I was there for Phoenix’s land­ing, and I watched Cu­rios­ity go through its own seven min­utes of ter­ror, but I hadn’t re­ally lived through those mo­ments un­til it was InSight’s turn. Though we’ve had suc­cesses in the past, land­ing on Mars, or any ob­ject, isn’t old hat. One third of all mis­sions that have at­tempted to land on Mars have failed. It’s a thing fraught with dif­fi­culty and po­ten­tial for fail­ure. InSight had made a jour­ney of nearly half a bil­lion kilo­me­tres and the barest mis­step in the last 100km, or even in the last five me­tres, would have re­sulted in catas­tro­phe. Talk us through what you were feel­ing at that mo­ment!

I was anx­ious and ex­cited, yet a part of me was steeling my­self for a crush­ing si­lence. If it had failed in that seven min­utes, we would hear noth­ing and InSight would lie for­ever in a twisted pile in a self-made crater on Mars as a tes­ta­ment to an in­fin­i­tes­i­mal frac­tion of a mis­take. I kept telling my­self, “all the wor­ry­ing that would have made any dif­fer­ence hap­pened years ago!” Like an Olympic gym­nast who prac­tices a rou­tine over and over un­til it be­comes sec­ond na­ture, we an­a­lysed and tested and re­viewed ev­ery de­sign and ev­ery pro­ce­dure un­til we were as con­fi­dent as hu­manly pos­si­ble that InSight would suc­ceed. But if a gym­nast doesn’t score a per­fect 10 life goes on. If they don’t stick the dis­mount they don’t ex­plode.

How were those “seven min­utes of ter­ror” ex­actly?

For me in that seven min­utes, time be­came split into dis­crete chunks of an­tic­i­pa­tion and re­lief. I knew the sched­ule of events down to the sec­ond and was white-knuck­ling my way through the an­nounce­ments. Each suc­ceed­ing step was one more hur­dle we’d passed. The ten sec­onds of si­lence be­tween the last al­ti­tude call-out and “touch­down con­firmed!” were the long­est of my life. Then there’s the video footage of my re­ac­tion – it’s pretty clear on my face. “Touch­down con­firmed!” is just about the most beau­ti­ful phrase I’d ever heard.

You got a lot of in­ter­net feed­back af­ter the launch – you’re now a bit of a NASA pin-up.

It’s a huge mul­ti­plier to my joy at our suc­cess. The no­tices and the flirts and the woofs and the propo­si­tions, they’re all supremely flat­ter­ing. Beyond the ego boost, I’m thrilled to have an op­por­tu­nity to fill a gap in pub­lic per­cep­tion of LGBT peo­ple in sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing. I wore my pride pin that day hop­ing that it might be seen by our com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially by young and as­pir­ing LGBT sci­en­tists.

I also wore my thigh har­ness as an Easter egg for the leather/fetish com­mu­nity. That has been no­ticed! I couldn’t be hap­pier about the re­ac­tions and I’m go­ing to keep bring­ing the joy of sci­ence and dis­cov­ery to our com­mu­nity as long as I have this plat­form. I hope I can show peo­ple what can hap­pen when we work to­gether against the chal­lenges and mys­ter­ies of the uni­verse and I hope I help peo­ple meet the chal­lenges and mys­ter­ies of be­ing them­selves. Did you ever want to be an as­tro­naut your­self?

I sure did and I still do. I ap­plied sev­eral times but haven’t made it past the first se­lec­tion round. That’s okay. It’s a big and tal­ented field of ap­pli­cants. I chose a ca­reer that gets me as close as pos­si­ble to space with­out ac­tu­ally go­ing there. If I had the chance to go to space, even if it were just a quick hop, I would ab­so­lutely take it. What ad­vice would you give to any LGBT kids wanting to fol­low in your foot­steps?

I’ve found that the aca­demic com­mu­nity, and cer­tainly the com­mu­nity at JPL, to present no ob­sta­cles due to my sex­u­al­ity. JPL is a very wel­com­ing place and many who came be­fore me worked to make it so. Be­ing gay has never caused me any dif­fi­cul­ties in my pro­fes­sional ca­reer. I de­cided long ago I wasn’t go­ing to skulk about, sub­li­mat­ing my de­sires and the way I wanted to live my pri­vate life to the threat of some vague fu­ture fear. When I would day­dream of be­ing in­ter­viewed in front of an as­tro­naut se­lec­tion board that was ask­ing about my sex­u­al­ity, my self-im­age al­ways proudly stated, “This is me, take it or leave it, but my work speaks for it­self!” At the same time, though, I also dreamt of say­ing, “NASA has prom­i­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tives of nearly ev­ery mi­nor­ity group ex­cept mine. Let’s do some­thing about it!” And here I am! My ad­vice is be au­then­ti­cally your­self and let your pro­fes­sional mer­its stand on their own.

What are some of your new projects that you can tell us about?

One thing I’m get­ting in­volved with is a suite of in­stru­ments to de­tect life on other plan­ets. We don’t have Star Trek tri­corders ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing life signs re­motely. We need to send our ro­bots to go and sip the wa­ter and lick the rocks and look for amino acids and car­bo­hy­drates and cel­lu­lar chunks. We’d be look­ing for life as we know it, life sim­i­lar to ter­res­trial bi­ol­ogy. As it turns out, that’s a sur­pris­ingly hard thing to do.

Is com­mer­cial space travel a vi­able pos­si­bil­ity in your eyes?

That de­pends on what you mean. I hope com­pa­nies like Space X and Vir­gin Galac­tic

My work has slipped the bonds of Earth and is poised to teach us some­thing new about our uni­verse… it is un­ut­ter­ably thrilling.

make ac­cess to space eas­ier and cheaper.

I long for the days when space tourism is a reg­u­lar thing. Travel through the so­lar sys­tem is also to­tally fea­si­ble, if cur­rently pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. But un­less we learn to con­trol fu­sion and de­feat grav­ity, we’re al­ways go­ing to need rock­ets and heavy chem­i­cal fu­els. That may keep zoom­ing around the so­lar sys­tem on a lark a rare thing. If you mean travel to other stars, yes, it’s pos­si­ble, but it would be a one-way trip for any trav­eller. To­day, at least, jour­neys beyond the so­lar sys­tem would re­quire a tremen­dous long-term fo­cus­ing of col­lec­tive will. We’re just not there yet as a so­ci­ety.

I’m thrilled to have an op­por­tu­nity to [in­spire] young and as­pir­ing LGBT sci­en­tists.

What do you like to do out­side of work?

I get bored eas­ily, so it’s a long list, es­pe­cially when you con­sider my past hob­bies. I’ve stud­ied mar­tial arts, played the bas­soon, and rid­den mo­tor­cy­cles. These days I like weight train­ing in the gym, danc­ing, spin­ning poi [tra­di­tional Maori dance], trav­el­ling to world des­ti­na­tions or just camp­ing in the moun­tains. Are you ro­man­ti­cally at­tached?

In­deed! For a bit more than a year I’ve been lucky to have the love of my life by my side.

We’re very much in love, we’re to­tally that cou­ple that gets su­per cutesy and schmoopy, and we play well with oth­ers.

The fetishists are my peo­ple, the kinksters are my fam­ily and the leather com­mu­nity is my com­mu­nity.

You’re also a proud mem­ber of the leather com­mu­nity.

I’ve been part of the leather com­mu­nity for a long time, hence the thigh har­ness I wore dur­ing the InSight land­ing. Not as long as space and sci­ence per­haps, but the at­trac­tion has been un­de­ni­able ever since I saw my first Tom Of Fin­land draw­ing. I at­tended my first leather event in Jan­u­ary 2001, be­fore start­ing grad school, and I found a fam­ily that I didn’t know I’d been miss­ing. In our sub-cul­ture, kinks, fetishes and even just the en­joy­ment of wear­ing gear like leather, rub­ber, etc, is cel­e­brated. Pub­lic open­ness about our de­sires – de­sires that broader so­ci­ety tells us must al­ways be pri­vate – al­lows us to con­nect with each other on very deep and mean­ing­ful lev­els, even if we don’t share each other’s par­tic­u­lar pref­er­ences. The fetishists are my peo­ple, the kinksters are my fam­ily and the leather com­mu­nity is my com­mu­nity.

Can sci­ence and sex­u­al­ity go hand-in-hand? Sex­u­al­ity and sci­ence don’t of­ten go to­gether in the pub­lic eye. There is a mis­con­cep­tion that aca­demics are un­ad­ven­tur­ous or dis­tracted from their own sex­u­al­ity by their stud­ies and cere­bral in­ter­ests, and that view makes sci­en­tists seem like some­thing other than hu­man. It’s a per­cep­tion that en­gen­ders dis­tance and maybe even mis­trust. I want peo­ple to know that sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers are not neuter au­toma­tons; we hope and dream and love and lust just like every­one else. You don’t have to choose be­tween be­ing cere­bral and be­ing car­nal – both are part of the beauty of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

Is space truly the fi­nal fron­tier?

There are plenty of fron­tiers out there to be pushed back. If “the more you know, the more you re­alise you don’t know” is true, then ev­ery­thing we study is a con­tin­u­ously ex­pand­ing fron­tier. The only fron­tier that is fi­nal is the one that marks where we stopped learn­ing.

MORE: Fol­low Troy on Twit­ter @troylee­hud­son. Tune in to his YouTube chan­nel: ScienceDad­dy

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