March 4, 2018 – More than 1200 guests visited Macky Auditorium at the University of Colorado Boulder last Tuesday for a sold-out address by former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space.
Jemison referred to an African proverb that says, “No one shows a child the sky,” and talked about the significance of people around the world looking up at the stars.
“When was the last time you looked up?” Jemison asked audience members. “I was looking up at the sky as I was walking over here. This is our human story.”
Before flying on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992, Jemison graduated from Stanford and Cornell universities, worked as a physician and served as a Peace Corps medical officer in West Africa. A talented dancer and the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek, Jemison shared moments from her childhood in Chicago and addressed the issues of leadership, inclusion and innovation as part of the Leo Hill Leadership Speaker Series.
“I remember when I was in kindergarten and my teacher asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I want to be a scientist. ‘ She said, ‘Don’t you mean you want to be a nurse?’ She was trying to counsel me on what she thought I could accomplish as a young black girl growing up on the south side of Chicago in the 60s. I said, ‘No, I mean I want to be a scientist.”
Jemison’s childhood included the space race, the Civil Rights Movement, seeing Americans land on the Moon, and watching Nichelle Nichols play Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series.
“I grew up during a time when our potential seemed limitless,” Jemison said. “So I didn’t want to be an astronaut – I wanted to go into space. It’s not a semantics thing – I thought that by the time I made it to space, I’d be a scientist on Mars.”
That’s why shortly after her shuttle flight, Jemison left NASA to pursue other challenges and at age 61, she is now principal of the 100 Year Starship, a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-funded project working to make human travel beyond the solar system a reality in the next century.
“The reason we’re not at Mars has nothing to do with technology — it has to do with public commitment,” said Jemison. “But we cannot do interstellar with what we know right now.”
Jemison believes that in order to become an interstellar species, we have to change people’s perspectives, and that along the way, we’ll be able to improve life on Earth. There are a number of barriers to interstellar travel that need to be solved and include everything from communications, sustainable agriculture and nutrition, to human behavior and identity.
“These are all things that are required for us to live on this planet, including learning human behavior,” said Jemison. “The challenge of human interstellar travel mirrors human challenges on Earth.”
That’s where inclusion becomes key, according to Jemison. Achieving audacious goals in space will require the intelligence of a diverse array of contributors, not just a chosen few. Jemison believes there’s a serious flaw with STEM programs today.
“Right now we’re at a critical point where we’re trying to improve human quality of life and we’re looking to the STEM fields to do that, but it’s cutting a path through this world, with only one-third of the people participating and bringing their questions and experiences to the table,” Jemison said. “The scientists and funders get to choose what we look at – what problems to solve, what priorities to address – and they also get to choose the means and the methods.”
Jemison believes that more perspectives are needed in order to bring balance and value to the space program. Determining how space technology makes a difference on Earth will depend on who you ask and who you involve.
“Across the world, every group of people have looked up at the stars,” said Jemison. It’s a shared experience that calls out to artists and clothing designers and doctors and dreamers, as well as to scientists and engineers.
“Space exploration will reach its full impact for peace on Earth when it’s inclusive,” Jemison said.
“Recognizing that I have a role to play and that I should actively contribute – it was energizing. We each have the opportunity to contribute to the creation of the future.”
To learn more about 100 Year Starship, visit: