Astronaut Mae Jemison Says Her Mission Didn't End in Space
As a little girl growing up in the '60s on the South Side of Chicago, back when NASA didn't allow women — let alone women of color — to be astronauts, Mae Jemison set her sights on the stars. To get there she earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Stanford University (where she also took courses in African and African-American studies) and then received a degree in medicine from Cornell University. In 1992 she achieved her dream, becoming the first woman of color in the world to go to space.
But, Dr. Jemison says, her time back on earth has been the most rewarding. "It's about what you do with your place at the table once you come back down," she says. "For me, it's making sure others are included." Two years after her mission she launched an international science camp for kids called The Earth We Share. Now she leads 100 Year Starship, or 100YSS, a nonprofit organization that aspires to send humans beyond our solar system within the next 100 years.
Star Chasing: Dr. Jemison's 100YSS program is designed to encourage scientists across disciplines to make advancements in areas like renewable energy and sustainability. "Even if it takes us 20 to 50 years to get to another star, we still have to figure out how to feed ourselves and maintain equipment. Suddenly issues of sustainability come to the forefront in a way they don't if you just think about living on the moon," she explains. "I'm not trying to build the Starship Enterprise. I'm asking, 'How do we influence the world so that big, audacious projects can be done?' "
Breaking Barriers: "You have to believe in yourself," Dr. Jemison says about facing challenges full-throttle. "I thought it was foolish when folks said that I couldn't be an astronaut. But we put stumbling blocks in front of girls all the time. I rebelled against them, took a risk, and put myself out there."
Cosmic Goals: Dr. Jemison wants to change how we think about science "and remind people that we have a responsibility to one another and this planet."
State of the Art: Before Dr. Jemison became an astronaut, she considered a career as a professional dancer. Ultimately, she chose to study medicine. She started as a medical officer for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia and practiced as a doctor in L.A. before going to work for NASA. Yet the arts never stopped playing an important role in her life. Phyllis Hyman, Stevie Wonder, and African drumming were her go-to soundtracks while she was in space. "People are readily identified as being left-brained or right-brained, but I want to be identified as using my entire brain."
Culture Trek: The astronaut's big Hollywood moment came in 1993 when she made a guest appearance as a lieutenant on Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of her favorite sci-fi shows. "Star Trek is one of our best fantasies because it uses science in a way that examines social issues," she says. Lego also created a figurine in Dr. Jemison's honor. And now she serves as a scientific adviser on National Geographic's documentary and science fiction series Mars. "Life is really full," she says. "You can find lots of things to stay curious, excited, and accepting."
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