First African American woman in space delivers Extraordinary Women Lecture

Published: February 18, 2016
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Nearly 24 years have passed since Mae Jemison went into space aboard the shuttle Endeavor, but her commitment to continuing the study of space exploration has not changed. Jemison shared about her ongoing projects and successes at the Extraordinary Women Lecture at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center Feb. 17.

Jemison, an Alabama native and the first African American woman in space, now leads the 100 Year Starship project, a joint effort between NASA and the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Jemison explained that the 100 Year Starship project is "to ensure that we have the capabilities for human travel beyond our solar system to another star within the next 100 years."

"We went to explore the moon and in fact discovered the earth," she said. "My question is: What would we discover from another star?"

But, the challenges to reach the capabilities of sending someone to another star are significant.

"Put three grains of sand in a cathedral and that cathedral is more filled with sand than space is with stars," she said. "When we start to think about these things, it's very, very different. It's the distance – incredible distances. There's nothing like it in our planetary system. You can't do it based on current technology. The amount of time that it takes makes a difference."

Jemison led a team that won a grant from DARPA to work on the project.

"Our mission is 'An inclusive audacious journey that transforms life here on Earth and beyond' and the first word of that is inclusion," she said. "I only think we do our best when we include people, talents and disciplines across the full spectrum of human expertise, capabilities and experience. The way we get to do large projects that require commitment is by having lots of people involved."

Another way Jemison is working to get people involved and interested in space is through The Earth We Share, an international space camp aimed at increasing science literacy for middle school and secondary school students.

"We believe pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow makes a better world today," she said. "It's really about kids understanding that science is a part of their lives."

To achieve science literacy, Jemison references the 3 E's: exposure, experience and expectation.

"Children live up or down to our expectations. If we expect them to do well, they do well," she said.

Jemison stressed the importance of understanding the role space has in everyday life, citing examples such as GPS, magnetic resonance imaging and the social impact of what it means to be able to communicate across the world.

In addition to sharing her successes, Jemison encouraged others to feel empowered to share their passions.

"Here's what I believe empowerment has to consist of," she said. "Believe you have something to contribute. This is something that comes from inside. Then you have to believe you have the right to contribute it. And lastly, you have to take the risk and go ahead and do it. That's what empowerment is. In many instances, we take our own power away from ourselves. What difference does it make if I act like everyone else and I don't share my ideas?"