MAKING SCIENCE SEXY
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!
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: YouTube.com/ ScienceDaddy