We met Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut to travel in space. She did this in 1992. She is also an engineer and physician. We met her at the Mars Installation in Manhattan, which was part of the interactive promotion by National Geographic for their TV series “Mars.”
As a child, did you study the stars through your telescope?
I loved the stars when I was growing up. I used to have all these books on the Apollo program, the Mercury program, how we were going to get to the moon. I loved going to the planetarium. I grew up in Chicago; there’s something called the Adler Planetarium there. I loved going there. I had books on space, and so I also used to look out at night and look up at the stars.
Was this something that made you think you could travel into space?
I used to imagine myself there. It was something I was very interested in. As I grew older and I was in high school, I read books about the stars all the time, learning about how people figure out the temperature of stars. You look at the spectrum of them and you can figure out the temperature, what they’re composed of. I love the stars, but I loved everything else, too. ... You have seen pictures of them up close; when I was growing up we didn’t have those pictures. There was this spacecraft called Voyager that started making this trip through the solar system, and Voyager I and Voyager II. That’s how we got pictures of Saturn’s rings. We saw Jupiter close up. We saw Neptune. Those were all really very exciting to me.
Beside space, what else did you enjoy studying while growing up?
I studied everything. You know the other thing I did? I played with mud pies. Do you know why it’s very good to play with mud pies? Because they teach you about chemistry. They teach you about drying times, how long it takes stuff to evaporate. I was interested in all kinds of things, and space was definitely one of them, and I maintained my interest.
You graduated from Stanford University and Cornell University. What is your proudest accomplishment?
I have a tendency not to pick one thing. Everything that we do in life helps us get along, and we should learn from everything that we do.
Did you have any fears when you were growing up?
I was afraid of heights as a child, and so I had to do parachute training and things when I was an astronaut. I had to get over that. That was one of my proudest accomplishments, which doesn’t mean the same thing to other people, but to me it means a lot because I didn’t like heights. When I was a little girl growing up in Chicago, I used to go to dance classes, and I had to take the “L” train, the elevated train, to class. I would go by myself, and I would have to walk up the stairs and stand on the platform to go to my dance classes. I wanted to go so badly that I would have to control my nervousness. When I got to the astronaut program, it was even a bigger part of control, because now you’re doing parachute training, and I’m not going to let all these folks know that I didn’t like heights.
What were some of your other jobs you had when you worked at NASA?
My very first job at NASA was as one of the astronauts who work at Kennedy Space Center and help get the shuttle ready for launch. One of the things I had to do while the shuttle was on the launchpad was to go up at night and check systems, and I would go up by myself. It’s this whole gantry that just has these metal grids, and so, if you look down, you’re looking down 12 stories. I had to get over that. I couldn’t say, “You know what, guys? I can’t do that job because I don’t like heights.” Nowadays, it doesn’t bother me the same way.
When you were in space, what was the thing you missed most?
The thing I missed most was fresh fruit, vegetables. I love fresh fruit and vegetables. And I missed my cat. I would have loved to be in space with just him by myself. I could have been in a great, big glass bubble and I would have been happy.
What could you see when you were in space?
I wanted to concentrate on that experience, to be able to look out the window and see the Earth underneath. And you go around it every 90 minutes. I looked down and I saw Egypt and the Nile’s delta and it’s just incredible, because it’s an incredible color. I would think about what an incredible opportunity this was, what an incredible adventure, and then I’d go and do all my work that I had to do with my experiments.
How long did it actually take you to train to go into space?
I joined NASA in 1987. I was in the first class of astronauts after the Challenger accident. There were two shuttles that got destroyed in flight: One was the Challenger and one was the Columbia. I was at NASA for six years. When I flew, I had to make a decision: What do I want to do with my time? So I spent a lot of time learning and contributing. As an astronaut, you also do work even when you’re not assigned to a crew. You support other people, space flights. You help to design experiments. I worked with a human research protocol. I helped work with the rhesus monkey project. As I told you, I worked at Kennedy Space Center getting the shuttle ready for launch. You do a lot of other things and you learn a lot. My task after I finished was to figure out what I wanted to do so I could take all that I learned at NASA and apply it to other things.
Why did you decide to leave NASA?
That was a really difficult decision. I can tell you, if we were going to Mars or the moon I would have sat there and twiddled my thumbs right in the corner — just let me get a chance to go. But I thought, here’s some other ways that I can help: I can help with people understanding why science and space exploration are so important to us on this planet. I became an environmental study professor at Dartmouth College, so I learned a lot about how to use remote sensing technology to help life here on Earth. I started a company that was looking at how to use space based technology to help people in developing countries.
What are some other things you have done?
Before I became an astronaut, I was an engineer as an undergraduate, I majored in African studies. I was a doctor; I took care of Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I worked in developing countries and I saw what happened in places where people didn’t have as much modernization as we do. I wanted to know how to make life better for everyone. I started an international science camp called The Earth We Share. I worked a lot with students on how to create science literacy. Sometimes you have a difficult decision: Do you stay in one place or do you use what you know to go and do more things? I wanted to go into more things. So life keeps evolving. Even though I left the astronaut program, I continued to be able to do space exploration, and able to do it in terms of what I’m doing now here, with Mars, which is really great, or with 100 Year Starship, the other project that I worked on.
What kind of experiments did you conduct when you were on your space mission?
My flight was called a Spacelab. It was a laboratory mission. We carried up this lab and put it in the back of the shuttle. It was about the size of a school bus. It’s in the back of the shuttle in the payload bay. We had a series of experiments that were done with the Japanese space agency. Autogenic-feedback training, where you look at space adaptations and how you control your own response to weightlessness. When the body goes into weightlessness, a lot of things happen. You lose calcium from your bones because your bones no longer have the weight, the hold-up weight. You lose muscle mass; your heart deconditions because it doesn’t have to pump hard anymore. We wanted to understand what that looks like, what happens to the human body.