Space agency NASA launched its latest mission to Mars in May. Its InSight probe successfully touched down on the planet last week, to the great relief of its associated scientists and engineers back on Earth.
Since landing, InSight has successfully deployed its solar panels and began to analyze the Martian surface. It will soon place a seismometer and drill a probe under the soil to more deeply analyze what’s going on beneath ground level.
‘The entry, descent and landing [EDL] was flawless,’ enthuses Dr Troy Lee Hudson, who has been involved with the project since day one. ‘Everything has gone exceedingly well.’
Hudson, 40, works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He’s been with JPL since 2008. Hudson’s official job title is ‘Technologist 3’ but he says ‘Planetary scientist and instrument systems engineer’ better sums up his role.
Hudson worked with JPL colleagues on the proposal to NASA for the current InSight mission, and has been involved at various stages in the project.
He’s helped to test out the subterranean ‘mole’ that InSight will burrow into the ground, and to analyze some of the data InSight’s already begun to send back.
Falling in love with space
Since he was a kid, Hudson’s been fascinated with the cosmos. He decided in high school he wanted to work in the space industry.
‘I wanted to be an astronaut,’ he admits. ‘I wanted to live and work in space. But even if you’re perfectly qualified, it’s an unlikely proposition because so few people get to be astronauts. So I focused myself on a career that would allow me to do stuff in space, even if I didn’t go there physically.’
Hudson talks to me via Skype from his home in Los Angeles. His partner, Matt, potters around in the background, while above Hudson’s head is a mobile of the solar system – the planets gently spinning. His fascination with the planets goes way back.
He was raised in Houston, Texas, not far from Johnson Space Center.
‘I was born in 1977, which is when the Voyagers launched, and also around the time we launched Viking to Mars. So in my formative years, in the early 80s, there was Voyager doing its grand tour of the Solar System.’
It made a big impact on his young mind, as did the early Space Shuttle program. His mom was also a big Carl Sagan fan and the young Troy devoured the original Cosmos TV documentary, as well as anything in National Geographic relating to space.
Hudson left Houston in 1996 to study at MIT in Boston, where he picked up two Bachelors degrees. He did a year-long internship with NASA before attending graduate school at Caltech. He chose it specifically because of its close affiliation with JPL.
Touchdown and celebration
Although he’s been working non-stop on the Mars mission for the past nine years, he’s seen his profile boosted since InSight landed on the planet. Footage of a tattooed Hudson fist-pumping with joy when he heard the news the probe safely landed went viral.
Eagle-eyed viewers spotted he was wearing a Pride pin. And a leather thigh-harness. It wasn’t entirely a coincidence.
— Science Daddy (@troyleehudson) November 27, 2018
‘I wear the Pride pin whenever I represent myself professionally, like when I give a talk externally or do an interview. It’s always been my hope to reach some people who are gay and who are scientists or technical people, and to show them, yeah, you can be this successful and be out and open.
‘It’s my way of combating LGBTQIA invisibility and I encourage others in STEM fields [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] to do likewise.
‘The most powerful thing you can ever do for someone else is to show them that they are not alone.’
Out at NASA
Hudson says he’s never had any issues professionally being an out gay man at work. JPL has an LGBTI employee resource network named Spectrum, and Hudson is a firm believer in being a positive role model.
He joined Twitter a couple of weeks ago and is picking up followers with his educational and informative videos about space and the InSight mission.
Timekeeping on #Mars is highly non-trivial. Especially when you have to somehow mesh with that pesky earth time. Here's part of how we do it.
#Marstime #NASAInSight #ScienceDaddyhttps://t.co/OhTtr3jcmv pic.twitter.com/jTijImpaDH
— Science Daddy (@troyleehudson) November 29, 2018
Hudson admits his ‘Science Daddy’ tag is a nod to his gay followers. He was touched when one young man wrote to him to tell him how inspiring he was.
‘I’ve received tear-jerking letters from gay scientists thanking me for being so public and open. Seeing someone like me, they realize there just might be lots of people like them and suddenly they aren’t alone at all.
‘The whole explosion on Twitter is a very welcome surprise. If you ask a gay person, or any one member of the public, to name a scientist or engineer, they might be able to give you Stephen Hawking or Einstein or maybe Bill Nye.
‘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.
‘To know that that message got out and actually affected people, and people did see me and realize that they are not alone, that’s a message that I’ve been dreaming of giving people. Now, all of a sudden, I’ve got a bigger stage and that’s great.’
And where did ‘Science Daddy’ come from?
‘I joined Twitter on Sunday [a week before talking to Gay Star News], with the anticipation that there would be some buzz after the InSight landing. And some guy posted this tweet saying “Why aren’t we not talking about the hot daddy engineer working on the InSight mission?” I thought it was hilarious and retweeted it.’
Someone else on Twitter subsequently dubbed him ‘Science Daddy’ and he embraced it.
‘“Daddy”, as a sort of descriptive term of endearment in the gay male world is a moniker that I’ve resonated with for a couple of years now. But yeah, “Science Daddy” – That has a ring to it! It felt right and I thought I’d run with that.’
Since then, he’s been picking up fans for his in-depth knowledge of InSight, and his… well, daddyish charm. Can we talk about the leather leg harness?
‘Yeah, my little thigh harness, which is a fashion accessory,’ he points out, ‘but it was a little Easter Egg for the leather community to pick up on. But I wear it all the time. It’s not like it’s an unusual part of my style.’
An ‘Easter Egg’, in geek jargon, is a hidden item placed in a movie, game, TV show for particularly close watchers. It’s just another way of Hudson saying: ‘This is me.’
Chatting with Hudson is a delight. His passion for space, and for sharing his knowledge of the galaxy, is infectious. He occupies a rare position, straddling both the world of engineering and science (‘the two fields sometimes speak a different language’).
InSight will heavily occupy Hudson through the spring of 2019. It’s hoped InSight will send back data for at least one Mars year (708 days). However, as Hudson explains, it could keep going.
‘The wonderful thing is that once we’ve done the deployment, once the robotic arm has gone and placed the instruments, we don’t really have any moving parts after that point. Unlike the Mars rovers which had their wheels and other things.
‘As long as InSight’s solar panels keep producing power, we could be generating data – seismic and heat flow data – for a decade to come.’
However, Hudson is already thinking ahead to future projects. He’s currently working on further JPL proposals to pitch to NASA (‘I’m not able to discuss those’). He’s also helping to system engineer a life detection instrument.
‘This is something that might eventually go to the global ocean under the ice of Europa, or to Titan or Enceladus, two moons of Saturn.
‘You can’t directly detect life from a distance, like on Star Trek. You have to have something that goes there that grabs the ice and sips the water and looks for proteins and amino acids and maybe even bacteria – something that is indicative of life. And that’s a complicated thing.
‘It’s something that I may get to work on for quite a few years. But I like getting in on the ground floor of a project and just sticking with it for a while. I did that with InSight and it’s great.’
‘I want people to know that scientists and engineers are not neutered automatons’
He’s keen to encourage other gay people to pursue their passions and think about careers in science and engineering. NASA is not the only agency now offering careers in space, with Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX program also on the field. And your sexuality shouldn’t matter.
‘Growing up in Houston, Texas, I was teased about being the smart kid, not about being gay. I’ve never experienced any negativity based around the fact I’m gay. I’m probably very lucky in that.’
‘I used to ride a motorcycle and wore my leather pants to work, and I’ve had other bits of gear on. I’d wear my Pride shirts and stuff, and nobody bats an eye. Because they just care about how you think and how you interact with other people. That’s the thing about NASA, it’s cooperative, not competitive.
And if, besides conquering new worlds, he can help change perceptions around scientists and engineers, all the better.
‘Sexuality and science don’t often go together in the public eye,’ he reflects.
‘I think 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 neutered 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.’