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How astronaut Sian Proctor overcame ‘imposter syndrome’ after being rejected by NASA

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Dr. Sian Proctor during fighter jet training in Montana on August 8, 2021.

John Kraus / Inspiration4

Sian Proctor became the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft last year, but despite her success the astronaut says she’s suffered with imposter syndrome her “entire life.”

One example of when Proctor said she suffered from this self-doubt was after she failed to get all the way through NASA’s astronaut selection process in 2009.

Speaking at the Credit Suisse 2022 Asian Investment Conference on Monday, Proctor recalled feeling “devastated” when she got that rejection phone call from NASA.

Proctor said she could hear her inner “imposter syndrome voice saying ‘see, you’re not good enough, you never should have applied and all of these things. How are you going to make yourself better? Because clearly, you’re not as good as you could be’.”

Instead of listening to those self-doubts, Proctor said she decided to reframe the rejection in her head, looking at the positive aspects of going through that selection process: “I went further than thousands of people in the selection process, I should be celebrating that, the fact that I was almost an astronaut, almost an astronaut was worth celebrating.”

She said that reframing that experience helped her move forward beyond that rejection to become an analog astronaut, simulating space missions on Earth. Ultimately, she said this then led her to actually go into space in September 2021, as part of the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission, making history as the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft.

Even so, Proctor admitted that imposter syndrome wasn’t “something that necessarily goes away.”

Another way she managed to combat those doubts, even just applying to become a NASA astronaut, was to think about what her father would tell her: “He would say: ‘Why are you talking yourself out of opportunity? Let somebody else decide if you’re qualified or not. Take that chance, go after that opportunity, even if it’s a no’.”

When applying for the SpaceX mission, Proctor suggested that pivoting her approach to highlight her skills as an artist and poet, helped her in the process. Proctor described this as her “entrepreneurial spirit” in the video application.

Proctor, who has been a professor of geoscience and sustainability at Arizona’s South Mountain Community College for more than 20 years, was one of four civilians to go to space in the Inspiration4 mission. The launch made history as the first with a full crew of nonprofessional astronauts.

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