NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space, brought a message of hope and inclusion to Lawrence Technological University during a campus visit Oct. 5.
Jemison’s visit was a joint effort of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the Michigan Democratic Party, but Jemison's partisan pitch was low-key.
“Hillary believes in science,” Jemison told about 50 people in attendance, “and I want to have a future of hopefulness, not an atmosphere of fearfulness.” And she also exhorted the crowd to register and vote.
But that was about all she had to say about this year’s presidential race. Most of her talk centered on her current work with 100 Year Starship, an independent, non-governmental initiative to make human interstellar travel possible within 100 years. Jemison won a DARPA competition to manage the initiative thorough the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which she founded and named after her mother.
She said interstellar travel presents an entirely new set of technical challenges than even travel to other planets, like Mars.
“We know Mars’ address,” Jemison said. “We've been there a few times (with robot probes). The technology to get (people) to Mars exists. We could get there if we had the commitment.”
But the technologies to reach other stars are unknown, because of the vast distances involved. Consider: depending on the planets’ position in orbit around the sun, Mars is anywhere from 33 million miles to 240 million miles away from Earth. The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, meanwhile, is 22 trillion miles away -- more than 100,000 times as far. The 1970s-era Voyager probe, traveling at a brisk 33,000 mph, would take 70,000 years to get there.
Even if humanity could build a spaceship that reached an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, the trip might take decades, and involve multiple generations of astronauts – and, Jemison said, “that affects everything.” She said astrophysicists rolled their eyes when she gave a presentation slot to a textiles professor at a forum on interstellar travel – until they realized how complicated and resource-intensive making clothing is, “and the boxcars and boxcars of clothing you’d have to take along for a 50-year journey.”
Interstellar travel also forces deep thinking about other issues, she said, from food to keeping human interaction peaceful. She said there’s even been talk about using steampunk technology in interstellar flights. (Steampunk, she said, boils down to doing high-tech stuff without silicon-based electronics, which would be difficult to impossible to manufacture on a resource-limited starship.)
Jemison urged the audience to continue with scientific study, particularly encouraging women and people of color, and said everyone should remember the quote of the famous historians of civilization, Will and Ariel Durant: “The future never just happened. It was created.”
Jemison was born in Alabama and moved to Chicago with her family when she was 3 years old. She graduated from Chicago’s Morgan Park High School in 1973 and enrolled at Stanford University at age 16. She graduated from Cornell Medical College in 1981. From 1983 to 1985, she was a medical officer in the Peace Corps in West Africa, ensuring the health of Peace Corps volunteers. She was accepted into NASA’s astronaut program in 1987 and flew her only space mission Sept. 12-20, 1992, as a mission specialist on the Endeavour space shuttle. She resigned from the astronaut corps in 1993. Since then she has taught at Cornell and Dartmouth and run her own technology development company, and served on numerous scientific and technical organizations, arguing in favor of getting more minority students interested in STEM education and careers. She was also the first NASA astronaut ever to appear on a Star Trek TV show, portraying a transporter operator, Lieutenant Palmer, on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993.