PHOTOGRAPHY BY MACKENZIE CALLE
FAR OUT: BRIAN MURPHY
No astronaut has been publicly out in outer space. Brian Murphy, however, is hoping to be the first. Juggling astronaut training while working on a PHD in astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, the 22-year-old who identifies as gay and non-binary is embracing being a queer role model in the space sciences, the kind they didn’t have when they were growing up in rural Maryland. Last year Murphy was named 2021 Out Astronaut by the nonprofit of the same name focused on empowering LGBTQ+ individuals to be ambassadors within the STEM disciplines (an estimated 40 percent of LGBTQ+ people in STEM are not out). This past year Murphy graduated with an honors degree in planetary sciences from Florida Tech, which is about an hour’s drive from NASA’s shuttle launch facility in Cape Canaveral and the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Mackenzie Calle captured Murphy during some out-of-this-world training exercises and also interviewed the astronaut-to-be. Their conversation spanned very large telescopes, the dangers of euphoria, and the pressures of orbital and suborbital representation.
Brian Murphy photographed in a flight simulator at the Florida Institute of Technology Center for Aeronautics and Innovation in Melbourne, Florida. February 2022.
Hey Brian! How are you doing? What’s new with you? I’m doing really well. About three months ago I came to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and I’ve been working on my PhD in astronomy. I’m working with the VLT, which is what we call the Very Large Telescope. It’s aptly named because the primary mirror is about 8.2 meters in diameter, or roughly 30 feet. I’ve been using that to observe the asteroids Dimorphos and Didymos. And on the Out Astronaut side of things, I’ve been preparing for phase two of my astronaut training, which will be starting in January 2023.
For those of us like me who are not from a scientific background, can you describe the work you’re doing for your PhD program in layman’s terms? I’m doing my PhD on spectroscopy, which is essentially studying the light coming in from an object. The light is basically like a fingerprint. Different peaks at different wavelengths are basically different colors, and that corresponds to different element signatures. So if we look at this light, we’re able to understand how these objects are composed.
I’ll be looking at comets and essentially reconstructing how these comets have evolved, how their different abundances of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and all these different elements have changed over time. Comets are basically like big icy snowballs about the size of mountains, leftover objects from planet formation about 4.6 billion years ago. They are some of the oldest objects in our solar system, true fossils. I’m trying to figure out how these comets that we see now formed the planets that we live on, essentially.
What initially drew you to comets? It’s a mantra in planetary science circles — we love to follow the water. Wherever we find water, we hope to find life. Liquid water is the key solvent that keeps us all together, keeps us alive, and has allowed for the genesis of life here on Earth. If we can find that elsewhere with similar conditions and similar element ratios, then that can better inform if there is second life, second genesis, on different planetary objects in our solar system. My whole research career from undergraduate now into graduate school, I’ve been following the water. My first project was following the water in Mars’s atmosphere and seeing where it deposits.
I worked on a different project with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, that focused on water abundances on a moon called Titan. Titan is a very large moon, a little bit smaller than Mars but larger than our moon by a substantial margin, and it has a thick atmosphere. Titan will orbit Saturn and accumulate a bunch of water ice in its atmosphere due to a different one of Saturn’s moons called Enceladus. That tiny moon has three to four times the entire budget of Earth’s water in saltwater, freshwater, everything. So you can really start to think about the possibilities of a second genesis on Enceladus.
I’m curious, what first drew you to space? Oh, goodness. Big question. I was born and raised in rural Maryland, and that gave me access to the night sky in an unprecedented way. If we think about the nearly 8 billion people on this planet, around 80 to 90 percent of them don’t have access to an unpolluted sky. And I’m not just talking about aerosol pollutants, I’m talking about light pollution. And that can absolutely destroy the natural wonder we have sitting right above us. And since I was probably four or five years old, I remember going out with my grandparents, my dad, my mom, and they’d just show me the stars.
I was always so fascinated because while they seemed distant, they seemed cold. I couldn’t help but wonder what are they? What are they doing there? How did they get there? And that led me down this route of asking these fundamental questions at a very young age. Like what are we doing here if these are stars and they’re big hot balls of gas sitting out there, and there’s planets around those balls of gas, and there’s 400 billion in our galaxy alone, and there’s 90 some billion galaxies. What are we doing here? Are there others out there?
It seems like you’re really guided by your endless curiosity and exploration of our solar system and beyond. Did that contribute to your wanting to be an astronaut? Yes, very much. Ultimately there are three things that guide me in my life. I always try to think with my heart, my mind, but also logic. It was logical for me at a very young age, I was maybe 10 or 11, to say, “Alright, so I love space, I love science, I love exploration, I love adventure, and I love helping people and being a positive influence. So what job can I do that will be able to best act upon that role?” I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut since I was very young, looking up at space. I always wanted to get up there.
When you consider that there has never been an astronaut who has flown into space as an openly LGBTQ+ person, and you could potentially be the first, do you feel pressure? It is difficult to handle because when you look at the 600 individuals who have been to space as cosmonauts, taikonauts, or astronauts, you see how well-rounded these individuals are and how supported these individuals are. And then I start to think, “Am I worthy of joining the ranks of those individuals? Will I be supported for who I am as an LGBTQ+ individual, as a gay non-binary scientist? Will I be supported just as much as they will be?” Physics and astronomy have a 40 percent dropout for LGBTQ+ individuals in the first few years of their early careers. What’s always driven me is the bigger picture. I might hit an exam that’s super difficult and I might fail that exam. There might be a terrible class I’m having, there might be a societal roadblock that prohibits me from moving forward because of some outdated viewpoint on the LGBTQ+ community. And I’ll get sad for a moment. I might even get stressed. I might get angry. But when I think about the bigger picture and about how important the work is that we’re doing, how many lives can be potentially changed and lives even saved from that representation, that acceptance, it just keeps me going no matter what.
I have goosebumps. Stop that right now!
Spacesuit by Final Frontier Design.
Brian trying on an Intra-Vehicular Activity spacesuit for the first time.
Can you tell me what your training has been like so far? February 2021, I did Introduction to Astronautics, which was a few months of preparatory classes, and then we had one week of intensive in-person training in February 2022 where we did so many different things! We did microgravity and high-gravity flights in an Extra 300L German aerobatic airplane.
Wait, so how many Gs or gravities were you to withstand? I personally withstood about five Gs. Which is quite a lot for a person of my size. I’m almost 6’2”, 185 pounds. As a taller person you have more blood going through your body and your heart has to work harder to keep you conscious. So when you’re pulling five Gs, all your blood wants to go from your head to your toes. So my heart worked in overdrive to keep the blood in my head so I didn’t black out.
What other training were you doing? We went to a normobaric chamber, which is essentially a chamber where they’re going to change the oxygen and nitrogen ratios to simulate being at different altitudes. So a few of us went into the chamber and we were hooked up to an oxygen mask. This was testing the hypoxia awareness of our bodies.
And what is hypoxia? Hypoxia is when we don’t have enough oxygen in our blood stream so we start doing all sorts of crazy things. It’s really dependent on each individual, and there is a spectrum of responses. My main symptom was actually euphoria. You’re laughing, you’re not taking things seriously, you’re just giggling, everything’s funny, you’re just smiling. And that’s actually really dangerous because if I am not taking things seriously, then during a real decompression event where this thing is happening in real life, I have probably anywhere from maybe 10 to 90 seconds to respond depending on the altitude. So it’s really scary because if you didn’t know that euphoria was your response, you might not approach the situation with the due diligence that you need to survive.
Wow. I had no idea any of this was a possibility. So in the future, what training are you most looking forward to doing? Oh goodness. I’m so excited for all the different training we have running in 2023 for phase two of Out Astronaut. In March we’ll have the microgravity research flight, and that’ll be multiple different flights in a private jet-style aircraft, but the entire fuselage will be these big chairs that’ll be able to accommodate our IVA pressure suits, which is an intravehicular pressure suit, that basically safeguards astronauts when they’re traveling to and from the earth to like, let’s say, the International Space Station (ISS). So I’ll be testing those, and I have a few payloads from my collaborators at Lumen Metaflow to test some biological sampling devices to see if they work in microgravity.
So you’ll be doing research in a microgravity environment? Yes. Essentially a metabolic sampling device called Lumen. And we have strengthened it to withstand launch vibrations, launch loads, on a Falcon Nine rocket. And we’ll be testing it to see if it works correctly. And it’ll tell us if we are burning fat, if we’re burning carbohydrates, if we’re burning muscle based on the things that we’re exhaling. And that’s very helpful because if you’re on a long deep space mission, you’re going to want to tailor your caloric intake and nutrient intake to best suit what your body needs at all times. So if somebody is burning, let’s say too much muscle, then we can give them a different sort of nutrient regime.
We also have an EVA (extravehicular activity) offset. So they’ll hook me up to a sort of crane bungee system and they’ll be able to simulate lunar gravity. And in Groton we’ll do emergency egress training. We’ll have this mock Orion capsule, which is NASA’s deep space capsule that can send us to the Moon and Mars and further, and the trainees will learn how to escape from the capsule in emergency water scenarios. You also get hooked up into this rollover device where they need to get out of the harness, and do all this underwater mind you. There’s also an EVA underwater, so there’s basically a mock up of part of a space station in the future that is underwater and you learn how to operate in microgravity conditions while moving around in the water in this big, bulky suit. From what I hear, it’s a little bit like being the Michelin man on the moon!
Okay so a very large question, why do you think that there has never been an openly LGBTQ+ astronaut? I think that there are, of course, societal reasons where for the past 50 years within the space agencies it’s been “don’t ask, don’t tell.” As well as the Lavender Scare in the 1950s into the 1970s, that was also very damaging for the LGBTQ+ community within the U.S. government, and especially at NASA. Specifically within the astronaut corp, a lot of early astronauts were directly drafted from flight test programs and directly drafted as military pilots. And still today, a significant fraction of astronauts are taken from military test pilot and military pilot programs. With that sort of military rhetoric, personal privacy was very much valued and encouraged, even if you didn’t want to be private about it. And I think that that is a main key contributor to how no one has been out in space while active within the astronaut corp. Of course, we had the late Dr. Sally K. Ride who came out after her death in 2012. And then Wendy Lawrence who came out after a speech to the Naval Academy in 2018. And then most recently is astronaut Anne McClain, who is still active in the astronaut corp. She was outed by the media in 2019, I believe, due to an ongoing dispute with her wife at the time.
I didn’t have queer role models growing up and I do wonder how that could’ve impacted me as a child. There are so many significant figures in the LGBTQ+ community now who are role models, but in some disciplines like space science, there is still significant underrepresentation. Growing up in rural Maryland, I was in a community where there was zero LGBTQ+ representation to begin with. So I didn’t even know what it was. I just knew I was different and that was something that I had to, you know, understand and explore on my own. And if there was a role model that could’ve shown me that there are other people out there like me, then I think things would’ve been different.
Are you currently in a relationship? I’m currently single. A PhD, training to be an astronaut, doing a bunch of global outreach, flying around the world, observations. There’s not much time left for anything else. Needless to say, it would be great if I wasn’t single. But this is what’s meant for me at the moment, and I’m completely content with that. I’m very happy.
Okay, lightning round. Favorite color? Forest green.
Book? House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds.
Place? New Zealand.
Film? Avatar by James Cameron.
Song? “August” by Flipturn.
Thank you for taking the time to chat. I’m so excited to see all of the places you’ll go. I do have one last question, and that is when are you going to space? I’ll say before 2025.
Brian Murphy in an Extra 300L aerobatic airplane before a parabolic flight to experience the weight of 5Gs.
This story was printed in GAYLETTER Issue 17.