Everyday Icons: The Astronaut

In honor of Black History Month, we're thrilled to interview the brilliant Dr. Mae Jamison: the first African American female astronaut in space.

Image Credit: Brian Virgo, AOL Inc.

In September of 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to enter outer space. Including the average woman in the exploration of the cosmos has always been dear to her heart, and is more viable than ever with her latest project: 100 Year Starship, a mission to make human interstellar travel a reality within the next century. We spoke with Dr. Jemison at the 2014 MAKERS Conference about ambition, problem solving, and finding your place in the Universe.

We have never heard of, or even dreamed of, a project as ambitious as 100 Year Starship. It completely blew our mind! What kind of science still blows your mind?

There’s a project called the Square Kilometer Array that’s going to be the world’s largest telescope. It’s being built in Southern Africa and it’s a consortium of African countries that are putting this together. When it’s built, it’s going to generate as much data as the Internet does every day. You’re going to have basically the equivalent of a square kilometer of radio. People ask why South Africa should do something like that. That’s not the usual place you’d think to do something like that. They had to out compete Australia and New Zealand. The head of the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa said, “It’s part of our dreams. Everyone has dreams. Dreams lead to hope. If you take away the dreams you take away people’s hope. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you only dream of food. Even a person in a mud hut without cover has dreams.”

Why did you choose to present 100 Year Spaceship at The MAKERS Conference?

These are very powerful women who get to choose who they support and what they back and I wanted them to back creating the future. People think a technologist is a technologist, an engineer is an engineer – they think there’s no difference. But there is a difference! You get to choose which problems to solve and depending on the way you get to ask questions, you get difference answers. The reason I wanted to bring 100 Year Starship is because the types of technology we want to start talking about, and designing, developing and researching, changes depending on who’s supporting it. I want to get the support so I can make sure we’re talking about applying this to life every day.

What kinds of challenges, new questions, collaborations or curiosities have you found from being part of MAKERS?

I like to think I’m very aware of things but it’s always helpful to have it brought back up. When I think about space exploration, I know that I want to apply it back on earth. It’s not about creating a mission, it really isn’t, it’s about radical leaps in innovation. When I hear about things that are going on in the world and issues that are very important, how can I apply some of the technology and ideas that I know about to address these kind of things? It’s always good to get someone to remind you about your responsibilities and duties. I try to do it for myself everyday, but it’s always good to get it from someone else’s perspective so you can grow.

What were you like as a child?

I was the youngest. I was nosy and I always liked a challenge. People used to call me “brave” and I’d be like, “I’m not brave, I’m just nosy.” My mother was a schoolteacher and worked when I was a kid. Back when I was growing up, there weren’t that many women working outside the home so I thought she was the bee’s knees. And my father was a man’s man. He did hunting, fishing carpentry, construction, all kinds of stuff. I hung out with my father and his friends when I was a little kid and I counted cards at 5, 6, 7 years old, playing cards with these grown men. They just got a kick out of it that I could beat them playing cards. That gives you a certain level of confidence I think, especially when you end up being around boys who think you should care.

We're not scientists, but 100 Year Starship feels like something that average, ordinary women like us can participate in. Since you left NASA, your work has been all about engaging society with science. Was there a moment or an event where you know that was your new path for your career?

Two things happened. The first was some of my professors weren’t that thrilled to see me in their science and technology classes. I had started taking Swahili just for the hell of it. I was at Stanford, I was like, “where else am I gonna take Swahili?” The linguistics teacher started talking about how language effects culture and how people see the world is reflected in their language and what they have words for. In Swahili, there is no masculine and feminine, they divide things into classes. There’s a tree class and insect class things like that. And that struck me – if you have that connection, there are other connections.

The other time was when I so much wanted to do advanced technology design and I always felt it was really a dilemma between advanced technology design and working in developing countries. I realized the problem was that people who worked in one field or the other didn’t know about the other thing. And that was a connection and when I was like “Boom! It’s there!” That was the solidifying piece and then I went to NASA.

If there’s something you’ve learned from space, NASA, science that has somehow influenced your life as Mae, what would it be?

I’m very, very comfortable with myself in the Universe. The feeling I had when I went up into space, I tried to make myself afraid and I couldn’t make myself afraid. Because I felt like I was as much a part of this universe as any speck of stardust. And every time I have that feeling of differentiation, I go back to that feeling of, “I’m as much a part of this Universe as any star, any comet, I have a reason to be here. I’m here and I have a reason to be here.” Some people talk about the overview effect when they look down and everything that belongs to them is right here on this planet. For me it was much more expanding. If I’m 10,000 light years away, it’s cool, I can belong there, because I’ve earned this.

p.s. Are you crying at your desk yet? What a beautiful soul Dr. Mae is! For more inspiration from our everyday icons, meet Erin - the breast cancer survivor.