While public interest in space travel has dwindled in the decades since Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, former astronaut Mae Jemison believes humanity’s elemental desire for understanding will take us back to the stars.
She is leading that charge as the principal of the 100 Year Starship Project, an endeavor to create the scientific capabilities today that will allow interstellar travel tomorrow. She invited Chautauquans on a journey across space and time during the morning lecture Wednesday in the Amphitheater, titled “Igniting Change,” with a special focus on literacy in science education.
“[Science literacy] means the ability to read an article on science and figure out what that means to you,” Jemison said.
But she said it is also recognizing both the best methods of human development and its true purpose, which she listed as knowledge, facts, skills, expectations and endurance.
Jemison was the first woman of color in space, commanding a 1992 mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station, where she spent eight days. A true Renaissance woman, she has had careers in science, literature, medicine and even dancing.
“I grew up during a time when our potential seemed limitless,” she said, remembering the awe she felt seeing the first moon landing. She had a similar feeling when she was in space.
“I tried to feel fear, but I couldn’t,” she said about being mere feet away from the inhospitable vacuum of space. “Instead, I was acutely aware that I was a part of the universe, as much as the planets and stars. We are all made of the stuff of stars.”
Jemison cited scientific advances such as lasers, biotechnology and semiconductors as examples of how technology has transformed our lives in the last 60 years alone.
“Lasers are used to correct cataracts and treat skin conditions,” she said. “We all carry around semiconductors in our pockets — our cellphones.”
Jemison said the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government agency with an omni-disciplinarian group of scientific experts across business and academia, set three clear goals for science innovation. First, bold, basic research in sciences. Second, improving science education. Third, improving diversity in the sciences.
Jemison also listed what she termed the “inescapable factors of education.” She spoke about using both the correct resources — teachers, funding, accessibility, tools and facilities — and the correct purpose to enable today’s students to become tomorrow’s scientists.
“We live in a three-dimensional world. [Students] need to be able to observe the world around them,” she said, rather than spending their time solely in front of computer screens.
“We’re using less than one-third of our intellectual capacity,” she said.
For example, she cited the deficiency of women in the field as the reason breast cancer was thought best combated with vasectomies, while today radiation treatment is the norm. She compared this to treatment of diseases such as testicular cancer, where the removal of human anatomy was rarely considered by primarily male doctors.
Similarly, she cited the most common Google searches parents’ performed for their sons and daughters. For sons, they queried, “Is my son a genius?” and, “Is my son slow?” most commonly, while, for daughters, they asked, “Is my daughter fat?” and, “Is my daughter ugly?”
“How Google would know that is beyond me,” she said, but it illustrated her point that how we treat our children affects what they will achieve in life.
“Science is gender blind and color blind, but along the way, we lose women and minorities,” she said. “Children live up or down to our expectations.”
She summarized her views on education with her three “Es”: exposure, experience and expectations. Education needs to be available regardless of location or economics, and it must be experiential, she said.
“Confidence is built not by trying once, but by trying twice,” she said. “Students have to learn with handson, with hearts-on and with minds-on.”
She finished discussing her passion for the 100 Year Starship Project. To travel the vast distances of space, something very different than the space shuttle she used for space travel would have to be invented. Specifically, new forms of energy will have to be harnessed for fuel, she said. For example, she named the splitting and combining of atoms, known as fission and fusion, and even antimatter as sources.
“[The starship] will be as vastly different as the U.S.S. Enterprise is to our modern space shuttle,” she said, drawing on her abiding love for the science fiction franchise “Star Trek.”
“Somehow, it’s more ridiculous to talk about world peace than it is interstellar travel,” she said. “But a lot of what the project is about is getting us there with human behavior. Our dreams are our hope — a hope for an inclusive and audacious journey to transform life on Earth.”