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This Groundbreaking Astronaut and Star Trek Fan Is Now Working on Interstellar Travel

Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, wants us to look beyond Earth

Jemison aboard the space shuttle 'Endeavour' in the Spacelab Japan science module. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Astronaut Mae C. Jemison, born on this day in 1956, has a few firsts to her name: She was the first woman of color in space as well as the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek. (She appeared as a lieutenant in an episode of Star Trek: TNG.) Retired from NASA now, Jemison is still working to inspire humanity to explore the final frontier.

To Boldly Go

Jemison was picked for NASA’s astronaut program in June 1987, according to her official NASA bio. By that point, the scientist–who has a background in engineering and medical research–already had a varied career under her belt. Then in 1992, she fulfilled a lifelong dream of going into space. She flew on the shuttle Endeavour, as a science mission specialist.

“As a little girl growing up on the south side of Chicago in the ‘60s I always knew I was going to be in space,” Jemison said during a 2013 lecture at Duke University. Part of her inspiration: the original Star Trek

In 1993, after leaving NASA, Jemison appeared on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise in a guest role as Lt. Palmer, in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Second Chances.” She got the opportunity when LeVar Burton (AKA Geordi Laforge in the Star Trek universe), who was directing the episode, found out she was a huge fan of the franchise.

Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the original Star Trek, visited Jemison on set, writes Tom Speelman for The Mary Sue. Nichols, a woman of color who was both a sex symbol and a knowledgeable scientific officer on Star Trek, crossed boundaries on television, writes Sheena McKenzie for CNN, and went on to become an important representative for NASA.     

“I appreciate and love the character Uhura but I like many characters on Star Trek,” Jemison said in 2016. The show “told a lot about a hopeful future where we were able to get past our differences.”

Her early love of Star Trek led to a more abiding love of science fiction, she said. “What really good science fiction does is to allow you to reflect on yourself, your values and your beliefs,” she said in the same interview. “It uses a fictionalized science as a mechanism to push us to think about what we’re doing–society is influenced by technology and the technology is influenced by society, our aspirations and who we think we are.”

A Continuing Mission

Jemison’s current work shows science-fiction-like breadth and inspiration. The 100 Year Starship project, of which she is principal, seeks to “make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality in the next 100 years,” according to the project's website. Jemison explained that this goal–and the technology required–will, in her view, also have impacts much closer to home than Alpha Centauri.

“The challenge of travelling to another star system could generate transformative activities, knowledge and technologies that would dramatically benefit every nation on Earth in the near term and years to come,” reads the project’s website. The space race already gave us satellites, remote sensing technology and new materials. 100 Year Starship argues that the new space race can give us much, much more.

“We may not all want to go [to space] but we all want to know what it’s like,” Jemison said at Duke. “It’s a part of our deepest longing as humans. Fundamentally we want to know who we are and where we come from.”

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