While many space enthusiasts wonder when and how humans will reach Mars, Dr. Mae Jemison has her sights set on visiting a star. This may sound somewhat fanciful because stars are far away compared with Mars, but Jemison has the credentials to present this as a serious proposal.
In September, 1992, Jemison became the first woman of African descent to go into space when she flew on the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour to carry out a variety of experiments in both material and life sciences. But that is only one part of her impressive resume, which also includes being a medical doctor, a chemical engineer and a champion of science education.
Since 1994, just after she left NASA, Jemison has been promoting science literacy, which consists of a basic understanding of the scientific method and the application of scientific principles and discoveries. She told VOA that people in every part of the world need to understand science for the sake of human survival.
“That is what we have to figure out is how do we include people, how do we support them, how do we get everybody optimized to their best talent, to their best ability?” she said.
Jemison is the National Science Literacy Advocate for the Bayer Corporation, which has encouraged its employees in 11 separate locations around the United States to volunteer in schools and has also helped develop science curriculum through its Making Science Make Sense project.
She said the program’s curriculum presents science as a way of thinking and finding answers to questions.
According to Jemison, a key part of the curriculum design is having teachers learn to be guides rather than lecturers. In some schools, she says, the students do hands-on work with various types of experiments and technical tasks so that they see scientific principles in action.
“It teaches kids about electricity by wiring a flashlight; it teaches about insects and metamorphosis by having students grow butterflies,” she said. “The students who were part of [the Bayer] program not only improved their science scores, but their reading scores improved even more.”
Jemison has a lot of credibility with students and teachers, having not only been an astronaut, but before that having worked as a medical doctor in Los Angeles and having served as the regional medical officer for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
But she downplays her own accomplishments and focuses on young people as the future of science and interstellar space travel.
“Do we stay in the same place that we are?” she asks. “Do we assume that humankind will be forever on this planet, or do we think about how we go forth and grow up?”
She dismisses the idea that such talk is fanciful, noting that less than 70 years passed between the publication of British author H.G. Wells’ science fiction story about humans traveling to the moon and the actual landing of U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July 1969.
100 Year Starship
Of course, the moon is relatively close. Jemison concedes that a spaceship set in motion toward even the nearest star could take around 70,000 years to arrive. But she argues that propulsion technology under study now might move a ship at one-tenth the speed of light, shortening the trip to 50 years.
Since the moon missions of the early 1970s, NASA has focused mostly on near-Earth human spaceflight, and many space enthusiasts wonder if they will live to see a mission to Mars, the closest planet to Earth, let alone a mission far beyond the solar system. But Jemison believes the technology will be developed if nations around the world come together to back a real plan.
“People talk about how come we have not gone to Mars,” she said. “It has nothing to do, really, about technological capability; it has everything to do with public commitment.”
In addition to her education work, she heads a private, nonprofit initiative called 100 Year Starship, which envisions a vehicle that could carry as many as 5,000 people to another solar system, where they could search for a suitable planet to colonize. But long before that, she says, scientists need to develop the necessary technologies.
'The cold chain is for real'
And that leads back to education, not just for scientists, but for technicians, engineers and skilled workers.
Jemison notes that the U.S. space shuttle program relied mostly on technicians and workers to build the vehicles and rockets and prepare all the equipment needed for launch. She thinks the education system today needs to provide more avenues for people who are not seeking a university education, but who could benefit from training in fields that involve practical science applications.
In one program Jemison helped launch in the San Francisco Bay area, students who were determined to be in danger of dropping out of high school were put in special science classes. They were then assigned as interns in laboratories and plants where they had to carry out tasks related to what they learned.
“One of them said something that struck me very strongly,” Jemison recalled. “She said, ‘When I was an intern and I had to take some of the products I was working on from one place to another and they had to stay cold, then I recognized that the cold chain is for real, and I also recognized that people actually counted on me and depended on me doing the right thing. It made a big difference to me.”