The Washington Post

Mae Jemison on forging your dreams, dancing and saving the Earth

For most people, Mae Jemison’s life began in 1992 when she became the first African American female to fly into space on the shuttle “Endeavour” But Jemison knows better.

She was a Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone. And after her six years in the space program, she founded the Jemison Group, a technology consulting firm in Houston, and the 100 Year Starship Project, a program created to ensure that human interstellar travel continues for the next century.

Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel in space, speaks to students at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson High School in March 2009. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Jemison will be honored Wednesday by the African American Experience Fund of the National Park Foundation, and talked with The RootDC about what shape she thinks the Earth will be in in 100 years, what made her apply to be an astronaut in the first place, and why she’s reluctant to label herself as an all-around role model.

What made you apply to the space program?

I wanted to go into space! That was the best way I could figure out how to do it at the time. I wanted to be a scientist, but I wanted to go into space. They are not mutually exclusive.

Everyone in the astronaut program has a degree in a science field. The crew are the ones who do the experiments, help to design some of the experiments that come from other primary researchers. So it becomes very important that you have a science background. So there’s no dichotomy between I started off wanting to be a scientist and I wanted to go into space. I also wanted to be a dancer.

Do you still dance?

Not as much as I’d like to! But those are decisions you make along the way.

Mae Jemison prepares to climb out of her T-38 training jet in September 1992 after arriving at the Kennedy Space Center. (Robert Sullivan - AFP/Getty Images)

Why did you only take one journey?

As I looked around, there were other things that I wanted to contribute. I had other skills, and at the time we were still in lower Earth’s orbit. We didn’t have an international space station. It was quite fraught — we didn’t even know if we were going to build it. I had to make a decision. It was a really, really tough decision. When I left NASA, I was looking at how you could use space technologies for developing countries’ work. I found I was fascinated and wanted to work a lot in developing countries and [find out] how do we use these things for improving human quality of life. We circle around and, as I turn “20” this year, I’m leading the team that was chosen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] to create an organization called 100 Year Starship. It is an organization that will ensure that over the next hundred years, we develop the capacity on Earth to send humans to another star system. We develop the capacity for interstellar flight.

What have you done with your platform and position to motivate others?

I’ve put together international science camps. I’ve spent a lot of time on sustainable development and technology. I was a professor at Dartmouth in environmental studies for a number of years. Why? Because again, all of this has to do with our cultural, social perspective. We’ve got a chance to make that decision in terms of sustainable development and sustainability. It’s what has to do with people’s aspirations. How do we improve quality of life in such a way [where] we don’t compromise future generations?

Will there still be an Earth for the Park Service to take care of?

My perspective is the Earth will be here. It just may not be habitable to our life form. We get confused. We think we’re the center of everything. I think science literacy makes a difference.

Science literacy isn’t that everyone becomes professional scientists, but you’re able to talk about these issues. We’re part of the ecosystem, and we cannot live without it.

What is your view on the role that African Americans have played, and will continue to play, within nature and the National Park Service?

As we tell the story about African Americans and the Park Service, sometimes people sort of miss the fact that African Americans have been so intimately involved with this country. We’ve had African American farmers. We’ve grown things. We’re a part of this. Sometimes when I’ve found we’re talking about the environment — it wasn’t until people started talking about environmental justice that it became a cry that was taken up by the popular African American media. It’s not about spreading the toxins around, it’s about fundamentally stopping and saying, “Yes, we have always been close to nature.”

The African American Experience Fund’s 11th Anniversary Awards Gala will be held on Wednesday at the Willard Hotel at 7 p.m., with a reception at 6 p.m. The Fund’s Women’s History Month Symposium will be held that day from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Cannon Caucus Room, Cannon House Office Building. Visit or contact executive director Lydia Sermons at 202-354-6489 or e-mail at for more information.

Read more on The Root DC

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