Mae Jemison has only been to space once — for just over a week in 1992 — but her role as the first African-American in space was nevertheless groundbreaking. This, despite the fact that Jemison was only in low Earth orbit, which had been the arena of NASA exploration since 1972, with little reason to believe space travel would extend beyond that any time soon.
By the following year, Jemison resigned from NASA to focus on the intersection of social science and technology. But she didn’t quit space outright. Her time in the private sector was still marked by projects relating to space, and in 2012, she won DARPA’s 100 Year Starship bid which is aimed towards building a company that will help make interstellar travel possible over the next 100 years.
Recently, Jemison was part of the group of space experts who consulted on National Geographic’s new Mars miniseries, blending fiction and nonfiction to depict a plausible scenario for what a future crewed mission to Mars might look like. Inverse spoke to Jemison at press event for the series.
To what extent can we make sure that going to Mars is not just a localized effort with just a few groups or individuals, but a serious global endeavor?
One of the things that’s really interesting about the time we’re in now is that the Internet brings more people together. The ability to fly from one place to another rapidly brings more people together. And so this idea of being able to create this international piece is really important. We have a head start there with the International Space Station — we’re working with the Russians, with the Europeans, with people in South America — that makes a difference, right? It’s a little bit scary because on the one hand, it maybe has slowed down the competitive piece. The fact that China has said they want to go to the moon and even Mars brings [back the competitiveness], but I think it’s going to happen internationally just because we’re there. There’s a project called the Square Kilometre Array which is going to be the world’s largest radio telescope. The biggest portion of it is going to be in South Africa, which is leading the way.
You can’t put the genie of interaction around the globe back in the bottle. It’s there, and it’s a good thing. But the question is, how do we use these incredible capabilities to enhance life back here on Earth? So a lot of the work that I do and look at and advocate for, even with 100 Year Starship, is about how we use these incredible technologies to enhance life here on Earth.
Everybody’s thinking about this. With 100 Year Starship, we have people involved from every continent and every discipline. This is a really interesting point in time where we can use the possibilities that we have to go forward as Earthlings or we can fragment. I think space is one of those things that could actually unify us.
You mentioned before that when we do travel to Mars, we’re going to be bringing all sorts of lifeforms with us — plants, bacteria, animals. How can we reconcile bringing those things with us without totally transforming this other world into a new Earth? How do we make sure that this new world still has that kind of character that makes it this new frontier?
So let me say something that’s going to sound awfully crass: By the decision to go to Mars and having human settlements on Mars, people have already made the decision that they’re going to, just by default, change things. There’s no other way around that. By going there, by advocating for settlements — it automatically changes it.
Maybe there are worlds we’re not going to go to — we’re going to leave them pristine, or we’re not going to settle there. One of the things we have to do right now on Earth is say, “We’re not going to settle this. We’re not going to tear up this piece of land, humans have consumed enough land. Let’s bring it back together. We don’t have to expand every suburb and not everybody has to have a different house.” This is something we have to do in terms of our behavior. But I believe that de facto, as soon as you say we’re going to have settlements, whether you want to admit it or not, one has already said “I’m willing to change things.” It’s not a happy answer, but I’m a realist.
Do you think we’ve already passed that rubicon?
In terms of Mars?
Not totally, but we’re getting close. I don’t know how many little bacteria have hung on [the rovers and landers we've already to sent], but life expands. It’s not just humans. Life expands.
Any final thoughts?
One of the things that I think was really important to me about this particular script for Mars is that the crew is incredibly diverse. The whole mission is incredibly diverse. And so it helps us to sort of see the world that way. And I’m going to harken back to Star Trek. What was very phenomenal about Star Trek was it envisioned a world, back in the 1960s, where everyone was involved. It changed the way generations looked at what space exploration ought to be like and what we ought to aspire to. I think that Mars has this possibility, too.
Photos via Getty Images / Jemal Countess