Sunday 3 July 2016

The Rocket Scientist

Of late, I have been spending a lot of my screen time on Quora. To the detriment, I must add, of this blog, for which I apologise. The nice people at Quora voted me a Top Writer for 2016, which was very affirming. I enjoy answering the questions, and I really enjoy learning new and interesting things from other people, especially where I knew little before.

One of the other Quora Top Writers for 2016 is Sophia de Tricht, who describes herself on her Quora profile as a published writer, a transwoman and a rocket scientist. It also says she has been described as "Our aerospace engineer that fell from grace," which Sophia says she found mildly flattering. Her online resume suggested she was part of a team renovating and rebuilding a very interesting aircraft. She is currently a student at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where she is specialising in commercial space flight.

Clearly she sounds like someone who has some interesting things to say, and I am always interested in hearing from inspiring people. As a result of reading her CV, I learned what an aerospike engine is: trust me; it's cool. I contacted her for an interview, and she responded immediately.
Sophia: Rocket scientist

So here is Sophia, sitting on my virtual couch, answering my virtual interview questions:

Tell us a little about yourself and your trans journey.

Well, let's see. I was raised in a non-permissive conservative Christian environment. A series of them, really. My dad sold computers in the halcyon years of the dot-com boom. Then he jumped ship (wisely) and went into medical supplies, but retained approximately the same territory. As the child of a salesman, I moved around a lot, but never to big cities. Atlanta was something I was aware of without having ever been there. We lived in swamps and dusty onion fields and recklessly racist nowhere towns. A couple of relatively nice places, but nice places in the middle of not-nice is its own kind of not-nice. The first time I ever went to a genuinely big city was when I left for boot camp at 18. It was in Chicago.

I never knew an environment of understanding. It was always an environment of shame and what I consider un-Christian practices. My family has always been heavily opposed to my being trans and I don't speak with them very much anymore and I always end up regretting it when I do.

Because I moved around a lot as a kid, I didn't really have good social skills, so I found it difficult to make friends. I had crushes, but once and only once in my entire school experience were they ever requited. I am the poster child for the unrequited crush. It was my normal.

But I tell you all that to tell you this: I didn't have the words to describe what was happening to me until I was 28 years old, when I came out. I was recently divorced and I had been asking a lot of big questions and it just seemed like the right time to explore and I did. I knew from the very first time that I felt right. I was in the military for about nine months before I was found out and discharged.

Can you tell us a bit about your career in the military? How did you get along being trans in the military?

I joined the Navy when I was 18 years old, in 2002. I joined to be a linguist. I failed the school and did some time as a deck seaman, doing general mariner work, then I got orders to intelligence school and I aced that and did that for the remainder of my time in the Navy.

I got out in 2010. Things were not going very well economically. So really I had only one choice: go back into the coast guard as an intelligence specialist.

Before I came out, I was... complicated. I attempted to drown out everything in ridiculous masculinity while mocking relentlessly all the trappings of masculinity. I loved to hate gym bros and dudes who put glass packs on their cars. I played airsoft, I tried to go for special operations, I qualified as a rescue swimmer... I was ridiculous. Just in general.

My military friends are a diverse lot. Most of them understand, some of them do not. There's not much of a conclusion you could draw from the demographics.

And you were an intelligence officer for a couple of years. Did they give you a cool car with machine guns behind the headlights, and an exploding pen?

Fallen from grace?
The intelligence thing is fascinating, but there's only so much I can say about it. I like to compare it to playing chess with foreign naval commanders. It was my job to know, through my various tricks, what they were going to do before they did. Then I told my commanders what the other commander was going to do.

Did they discharge you from the military because you came out as transgendered?

Yes. I was discharged because I was "unavailable for worldwide deployment."

Tell me how you acquired the title "aerospace engineer who fell from grace"?

I came to Embry-Riddle to be an aerospace engineering student. I took on several engineering projects and then I was seduced by the power of the dark side and went to commercial space operations. That's the "fall from grace" bit. It's flattering because I was never an actual engineer.

What drew you towards commercial space travel?

Gosh, when I was in 4th grade, my science text book had a false-colour image of Saturn and I was just enraptured by it. I had to know everything there was to know about that place. And so one of my enduring loves has always been space. Commercial space operations seemed to me to be a very lucrative way to work with space.

When one thinks of commercial space travel, one thinks of booking flights to the Moon, to a 7-star hotel under a giant dome. Realistically, however, space tourism is likely to mean Low-Earth Orbit, at least for the next couple of decades, surely?

Heh. Not even that. In the near future, it'll be suborbital flights. It's way easier to escape the atmosphere than it is to enter orbit. Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and WorldView are the passenger services and they're all suborbital at this point. The orbital stuff is all cargo right now. Human flights to the International Space Station will start probably next year, if all goes to plan. That said, there is a company that can get you a ride on a Soyuz, which is the only manned vehicle to go to orbit right now. And there's one that's just starting up that's trying to go to the moon for a very steep price.

I can imagine space tourism being a popular, but very niche industry. What other applications of commercial space flight might we be looking at?

Well, the very fabric of our lives in this modern age depends on space applications. I'll finish typing this answer and hit send, it will travel through the wi-fi and through some lines and it'll be beamed to a satellite and piped down to you. Then, in the morning, I'll get up, turn on my GPS and drive over to spend time with a friend. This weekend, I'll be using Google maps, which relies on remote sensing satellites as well as ground vehicles. And so on; the list is nearly endless.

Fun fact: basically all of that stuff is not just a space application, but a commercial space application. Satellites have to be replaced occasionally. Cargo has to go to the International Space Station, and trash has to leave. Asteroids can be mined. Agriculture can be greatly improved by affordable remote sensing satellite access.

What are you going to do with your BD-5J MicroJet once you get it airborne again? Looks a bit dangerous to me!

Dinky but dangerous: the BD-5J
Well, the aircraft is dangerous for the unexperienced pilot, and it's very difficult to get the required experience. It started off as a cool project for which I held a very impressive title. Otherwise, it was kind of a joke.

The current leadership on that project decided that once it was complete, it would become a static display. Permanently. I'm no longer involved with the project. But when I was, I was in charge of flight and occupational safety. On the one hand, I had to make sure that everyone wore their hard hats and safety glasses. On the other hand, I had to make sure that the aircraft was safe to fly, which in my case meant understanding where it had failed in the past and getting my proposals for a fix rejected. I started to rewrite the pilot's operating handbook, but the idea was also junked because of bureaucratic pressure.

You are fluent in several languages. How did that come about?

I don't know; it just kind of happened. It started with Japanese, because I thought it would be a challenge that me and my brother and my dad would do together. Of the three of us, I'm the only one who speaks it at all. I learned French in high school (my French is terrible), Norwegian because I was thinking about relocating there, Spanish in Latin America (three of my four deployments and my one shore station were all in Latin America--I should own a winter home in Panama), Persian in linguist school. Oddly, quite a bit of Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, and Korean as well; Mohawk because it's a dying language and I think it's kind of nifty to be the keeper of arcane knowledge, Tibetan and Mongolian because I thought they'd be fun.

What draws you to Quora?

Originally, I came across it when I googled a question I had. I stuck with it because I like sharing what I know, and as of this writing, I've been able to share my knowledge and views with 5.1 million people. I've been published in Forbes thrice and once in Newsweek. It's good exposure. Quora has a team of people that liaise with the publishers. They're the best.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing for trans people, what would it be?

Employment, hands down. I am sometimes asked to give talks about trans issues in the workplace for some bizarre reason. I'm comfortable with public speaking and I know trans issues, I assume. Anyway, I tell them all a couple of different things, one of which is "The only thing that is required for the success of transgender people in American society is that employment discrimination be eliminated." Look, it's easy to discriminate against trans people in employment. Even in places with strict laws in place. If that goes away, we'll start making money. A vast majority of our problems can be ameliorated to some extent by gainful, meaningful employment. Not as short-order cooks, but in corporate America.

I've been turned down for a lot of jobs (three years worth) after interviews that began with the manager falteringly not knowing how to handle speaking to me.

Tell us more about Sophia the woman?

Are Aviator glasses compulsory?
Sure. I love dancing. I belly dance and I'm trying to get proficient enough to perform, and I can flamenco a bit. Belly dancing is a great workout and it makes you feel very sexy once you get it down.

When I was in the coast guard, I qualified as a cutter surface swimmer which is like the more traditional rescue swimmer, but instead of a helicopter, we jump off the ship in a storm. I love swimming. I've swum in the deep ocean. I hear people say the idea terrifies them. I didn't mind it much. It's all time and practice and not thinking about it. It's salt water. You'll float in it if there's breath in your lungs. And you never swim far from the ship.

I fancy myself a funny lady. My father does stand-up back where he's from, we're an amusing lot. Granted, my two routines are essentially my best two sea stories--they're foul!

And who doesn't love a good wine? Some other things... I don't do much right now in my free time because I haven't got any. But on the rare occasion I do get some time off, I do enjoy heading out to see old friends and visit new places and drink and dance. Nothing finer.

What famous person would you most like to meet and why?

Hm. Lindsey Stirling, maybe? I quite fancy her. I dunno. I don't think I care much. I'm not actually very good at social interactions. It would almost certainly be awkward.


So, as always, a little reflection is in order.

First, Sophia seems to fit into the theme, touched on in some of my other posts, that some trans women attempt to become uber-masculine, as a way to "prove", to themselves and others, that they are men. Almost always, this causes great suffering. As I have mentioned before, no amount of military discipline can "make a man out of you", no matter what the common beliefs around this might be.

Second, and again in common with other trans people I've spoken to, Sophia admits to some difficulty with social interactions. Difficulties at home growing up, difficulties at school; those things would be enough to make any adult awkward and ill-at-ease socially. I know I love to be among friends, but among crowds of strangers I often hang back, unsure how to break in. (And I can so relate to that comment about free time? What free time?)

Third, I always find it interesting to talk to high-functioning trans women. It's clear that, to succeed in any field, a trans woman must overcome considerable obstacles: in order for her brilliance to shine, she needs to be accepted, and given an opportunity. A very few (that I can think of) have made it that far (Sophie Wilson and Jan Morris spring to mind). Those are people for whom the thought would be "this is a very successful individual, who happens to be a trans woman" rather than "this is a trans woman who happens to be successful".

Here is someone who has the potential to be extremely valuable and productive for any company which hires her. And yet, by her own admission, she is struggling to get employment (and she points out the same is true of many other trans people). I can well imagine that discrimination is common: "I'm afraid you're not what we're looking for right now" may be an acceptable, euphemistic version of "We're not sure that hiring a trans woman is OK with our management team right now".

So if you happen to live in Tibet, or Mongolia, and want a commercial space specialist who can speak your language, give Sophia a call.

But I am sure Sophia is right. There is probably an untapped reserve of trans talent out there: professional, qualified, experienced, hard-working, ready to step into the labour market (albeit in tights and heels, but who cares?). Employing those people is a win-win: a win for trans people, who will get better recognition, better self-esteem, better wages, better acceptance; and a win for the companies, who will get capable, loyal employees to work for them.

Perhaps those companies should have a re-think. After all, it's not exactly roc-- oh, wait a minute.