A transgender Colorado man hopes to be the first "out" astronaut in space.
Sam Long, a science teacher at Standley Lake High School in Westminster, hopes to be something of a combination of astronauts Sally Ride — the first American woman in space — and Christa McAuliffe.
Ride, although she never disclosed it during her lifetime, was a lesbian. McAuliffe, who perished in the Challenger accident, was a high school science teacher.
Long, who uses the pronouns he/him, is a first-generation Chinese-American Canadian and a third-generation scientist. His teaching includes a gender-inclusive curriculum in biology.
He's entered a contest, known as "Out Astronaut," funded by a grant from the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences. The winner, who will be selected based on merit, will receive training in the September 2019 Advanced PoSSUM Academy class at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
PoSSUM, which stands for "Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere," is the only crewed suborbital research program. Citizen scientists selected for the program will work on cloud samples in space, possibly tied to climate change.
According to the project's website, the end goal is to "train and fly an exceptional LGBTQ student to space to conduct relevant research" that will highlight LGBTQ contributions in science and space.
"There haven't been any LGBTQ astronauts, and as unattainable as that goal may be, it's a powerful statement to go for it," Long told Colorado Politics. "For trans people in particular, the narrative is about surviving and overcoming challenges in normal life. That's not the limit or as far as we can go. I want to show myself and young people that trans people can do incredible things."
The PoSSUM Academy, which is based in Boulder, has sent finalists to the United States and Canadian astronaut programs. Its director, Jason Reimuller, holds both a master of science degree in aerospace engineering and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering sciences from CU-Boulder.
Reimuller, who is gay, told Colorado Politics that 561 people have been selected for the national space program, yet not one has been an "out" LGBTQ person.
Out Astronaut is intended to show that the LGBTQ community is underrepresented in science, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). It's a very important message, Reimuller said.
"We need to be more participatory, more literate as a culture," and this will lead to having an LGBTQ person as a scientist and role model, he said.
The PoSSUM project is an international nonprofit and has members in 41 countries, including "emerging space countries that are trying to drive science education."
The space project tied to PoSSUM and Out Astronaut is a human-manned experiment, which Reimuller said is "an incredible opportunity to build an education program."
The project will look into "noctilucent" clouds, aka "night-shining clouds" that are visible in the Northern Hemisphere from May through August and in the Southern Hemisphere from November to February. Studying these clouds will help researchers understand the environment in a new way as well as with possible ties to climate change.
The flight will be done through commercial space, rather than as part of NASA, Reimuller explained, although the PoSSUM astronauts are citizen scientists, not space tourists.
These citizen science efforts "make science less dependent on political swings," he added.
The project's application deadline is July 31. Voting for the contestants takes place through Sept. 1. The award announcement will be made on Sept. 8 and also presented as a forum at the International Astronautical Congress in October.
The time is ripe for rekindling an interest in space, just as McAuliffe did in the 1980s, Long said. He believes technical advancements can't come without greater attention to diversity.
"Out Astronaut takes the problem in STEM in general, a lack of diversity, and looks at how that impacts how young people see themselves and what they see as possible."
"We're at a turning point," Long told Colorado Politics. "For me to have the confidence to go for it now, I'm at a good place."