— Heather Archuletta (@Pillownaut) May 22, 2013
I was covering a story about Spacefest V, a convention of astronauts, scientists and space nerds at a crazily sprawling resort nestled in the cactus fields of western Tucson, Ariz. It was only a few minutes into an interview with a NASA social media rep, and I was confused. Very confused.
Did that woman just say what I think she said?
My hand was hovering over my notepad, uncertain what to scrawl. I asked her to say it again.
“Tich. Tor. Ang. Tesmur,” she said. Her hand, though, should’ve been the hint. It was raised in the classic V, two fingers on one side, two on the other. Anyone with any nerd-blood in them would recognize it as the hand sign Spock gives on Star Trek.
For those not familiar, Spock is from the fictional planet Vulcan, and their culture is totally bent around logic — no emotions involved.
“Live long and prosper,” she said, by way of translation. The traditional Vulcan greeting put a smile on my face, and I knew I was going to be talking to someone who spoke my language.
Not literally, of course.
But though I don’t speak Vulcan, we did both speak nerd. Heather Archuletta has a major jones for space. “I’m an astronaut groupie,” she said.
It was while still in the womb that she first heard Walter Cronkite reporting on Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, or at least that’s the story her mother tells her. In 2008, that same passion led her to leave her career as an IT professional and turn herself into a human experiment for NASA.
Archuletta was one of the few, the proud. She was a “pillownaut.”
Lying at a negative 6-degree incline without being allowed to get up for 54 days, Archuletta was literally sleeping for science. NASA uses the findings to plan for the health of astronauts long-term space missions.
She did it because like any other self-respecting Trekkie, she wants to see humanity reach into the stars.
“I really want to see a human footprint on Mars in my lifetime,” she told me. “I really want to see that happen before I kick off.”
At this point I was definitely feeling nerd-shamed. Archuletta and I are both from the Bay Area, and though by sheer coincidence we had both been to the same Star Trek convention (the cross-dressing men in Starfleet uniform dresses won third place in the costume contest!), she took her love of space to the next level.
And her time as a test subject was quite a risk too.
“My vestibular was all crazy, I kept bumping into doors, I couldn’t drive a car for a couple of weeks, my legs didn’t work anyway,” she said. There were also long-term health risks. “I did physical therapy they had for people who have strokes.”
But she loved it. She even started a blog chronicling her time in bed. When national news networks started interviewing her, the blog blew up.
“They put it on the news and my blog went from eight hits a day from my mom and Grandma to 8,000 views a day,” she said.
So NASA did something very smart. They gave her a job.
As a contractor, she’s now a hired gun for NASA social media. She even tweeted the Mars Curiosity rover landing live from a room next to mission control.
But true to her Vulcan fandom, she stays humble about her accomplishments. She was there at Spacefest to meet the astronauts, the real heroes, she said.
— Heather Archuletta (@Pillownaut) May 26, 2013
“When they landed on the moon, they didn’t know if they were going to step out there into regolith and sink or whatever, or absorb radiation, or crash on landing,” she said.
She spoke so quickly and so excitedly that I was glad I had a recorder with me.
“They gave their lives for science and humanity.”
Archuletta may be humble but she has done what many space nerds, including myself, have dreamed to do — she’s played a role in bringing humans to Mars.
The “pillownaut” may not have gone to the moon, but like our mutual hero Spock, she’s helping humanity go where no one has gone before.