Mae Jemison: the astronaut plotting a journey to other stars

    16
    0
    SHARE
    Mae Jemison: the astronaut plotting a journey to other stars
    Mae Jemison in orbit in 1992

    Mae Jemison in orbit in 1992

    NASA

    By Sam Wong

    Best known as the first black woman to go into space, Mae Jemison has done much more in her remarkable career as an engineer, doctor and science ambassador. Now, she is leading the 100 Year Starship project, an effort to drive forward the capability for interstellar travel within the next century.

    Jemison grew up in Chicago in the 1960s. She always had a keen interest in science, but also wanted to be a professional dancer. She enrolled at Stanford University at the age of 16 and graduated in chemical engineering, then faced a difficult choice to study medicine or become a dancer. “My mother said you can always dance if you’re a doctor but you can’t necessarily doctor if you’re a dancer,” she said in an interview on StarTalk Radio.

    After gaining her medical degree, she worked as a general practitioner, then joined the Peace Corps as a medical officer and worked in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In 1987, she applied for NASA’s astronaut programme and was one of 15 candidates selected from 2000 applicants.

    Advertisement

    Jemison got to space in 1992, on the 50th space shuttle flight, and orbited Earth 126 times. “I was really irritated when I joined the astronaut programme because when I was a little girl, I figured by the time I was old enough to be an astronaut, I would be hanging out at least on Mars,” she said on StarTalk Radio.

    She believes the lack of progress is not down to engineering limitations, but a lack of public commitment to space exploration. “That’s why we have to bring so many people in and include them in things. People didn’t see why it made a difference,” she said.

    Jan Davis and Mae Jemison working on experiments

    Jan Davis and Mae Jemison working on experiments

    NASA

    With her current project, she is determined to rectify that by including people with a broader range of backgrounds and skills, and showing that pushing the frontiers in space can reap benefits for life on Earth. The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which she established in honour of her mother, was awarded a grant from the US government agency DARPA to pursue the radical leaps in our capabilities needed to achieve interstellar flight.

    The challenges relate not just to technology, but human health, psychology, sustainability, economics and a host of other disciplines. A motto of the project is “space isn’t just for rocket scientists and billionaires,” she says.

    24444165494_c2f556d41f_o

    Bret Hartman/TED/CC BY-NC 2.0

    More on these topics:

    Read More

    Leave a Reply