She was the first African-American woman in space and the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek. Now, as principal of the 100 Year Starship organisation, Dr Mae Jemison is aiming to pioneer another first: interstellar travel.
Dr Jemison, could you explain what 100 Year Starship (100YSS) is?
Yes, 100YSS is an initiative to make the capabilities for human interstellar travel a reality within the next 100 years. It’s a really difficult challenge designed as a mechanism to push radical leaps in innovation, knowledge, systems and technology that can also benefit us here on Earth.
I think of it as blue sky versus black sky. People think of blue sky investment and design, it’s completely open, you can work in different ways. But with blue sky you sort of know what’s there and the parameters. As you get deeper into space the sky becomes black.
You don’t actually know everything you need to know. So how do you develop a paradigm to think about that whilst being flexible and rapidly adjusting? That’s where we’re pushing ourselves.
How did 100YSS come about?
The team I led won a competitive seed funding grant from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to start the organisation. 100YSS is a completely independent non-governmental organisation.
DARPA was keen to fund something that would push innovation in a way that may not happen if it were to stay within a governmental agency.
What made you want to get involved with the project?
When I heard about 100YSS I thought, ‘I know how to do this.’ All my life experience has been around connecting somewhat disparate technologies and ideas.
I’ve been working on science literacy ever since I left NASA. Before I joined the astronaut programme I worked as a doctor in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
I have worked in Cambodian refugee camps. I knew that there was a lot of ‘advanced technologies’ that could impact life in the developing world that we weren’t using. As a little kid growing up I always wanted us to do bigger things.
I grew up when we were landing on the moon and when I was an astronaut I was irritated that we were only in lower Earth orbit. I thought we’d have been sitting on Mars by then. It was that push and wanting to make something happen that made me want to get involved with 100YSS.
What more can you do than helping to shepherd our journey from our cradle?
“You’re probably going to use so much energy you’re not going to come right back”
What has 100YSS done so far?
We got the grant in 2012 and since then we’ve had two public symposiums. The first one was in September 2012 and we were really proud to have former President Bill Clinton as our inaugural chair.
The reason we wanted to do that was to show that this is about everyone. The public symposium allows people to come together and meld ideas.
We’re building a community around a global aspiration that’s wider than astrophysicists and rocket scientists – it’s about people who are experts whose expertise can be applied to space exploration – coming together to energise, think about the world differently and accelerate the creativity around it.
“The only thing I’d want to do is carry my cat with me”
Why would we want to make interstellar travel a reality?
Let’s think about the way we do space probes right now. Voyager, which just went outside of our solar system about a year and a half ago, has been travelling at about 35,000 miles per hour since 1977.
Our closest neighbouring star is Proxima Centauri, about 4.2 light years away. If Voyager were to head towards it at current speed it would take 70,000 years to get there. That’s a long time. We weren’t even cave painting well back then! So clearly we have to do something different.
What could that something different be?
You’re going to have to go to something like really good fission, the same way we split atoms, which may not be enough. Or we’re going to have to go to fusion, which powers the sun, which we really don’t know how to do yet.
Or we’re going to have to go to anti-matter, which they make at CERN [the European organisation for nuclear research]. But let’s say you figure out the energy and you can go one tenth of light speed, so it’d take you 50 years to get to our nearest neighbouring star.
You’ve cut 70,000 years down to 50 years – that’s pretty good, right? But here’s the problem, if you put humans on board, how do you feed and clothe them? Right now if you think about going to Mars there’s enough capability to carry a lot of what you need with you.
If you were to try to carry enough food and clothing for 50 years it would be impossible. We have to think about things differently.
How do you intend to do that?
The key to this is building relationships and inviting other people in. I’m looking at advanced aerospace manufacturing.
A lot of the time when people think of space exploration they think of astronauts and PhD scientists but we wouldn’t be anywhere unless we had the folks who were building the stuff. Those are the people who are going directly out of high school into two-year degree programmes. They’re creating the future and we need to connect them in.
We put together a series of resource materials for third to sixth graders about 100YSS, so we get to talk about lots of different things.
We have Karl Aspelund, professor at Rhode Island, doing work on pushing the boundaries of textile and design and taking the word out. We have professors who are working on bone research.
There’s folks who are already doing the research so we don’t have to do it but we can rally for them as well as putting together workshops and forums that can look at new areas of work.
“The reality is the reason we’re not on the Moon is nothing to do with technology”
What do you think is the most likely tech to be involved in interstellar travel if you had to guestimate now?
I can bet you that we’re going to have to really deal with issues of sustainability. I can bet you that it’s going to be growing food and developing really good ecological systems.
I would bet whatever type of ship you build it’s not going to be austere. It’s going to have plants and animals and an ecosystem in it.
There’s some interesting technology. Claudio Marconi out of Italy has done this gravity lens on the sun where you use relativistic physics to get a focal point, where you can magnify electromagnetic signals from distant stars. I bet those kinds of technology will come into play.
With such huge time and distance issues involved – will you have to develop technology capable of manipulating time?
I’m not going to jump into that because that goes into a lot of theoretical physics. You’re probably aware that there are people who have come up with equations that say ‘we could warp space time.’
The only thing I’d say as an engineer is: where are you going to get the energy from? The quantities of energy required would be vast.
So there may not be any rules of physics that say it can’t happen but there might be some issues around the engineering.
From your experience of going into space, what do you think interstellar travel will be like?
I think it will be completely different. When I went up with the shuttle, you still get to see the Earth. You can just look out the window and see it. You’re not that far from it. You can get back in a couple of hours. It’s all good.
When you start to think about going to Mars you’re a month away. And when you think about doing interstellar, even if you figured out how to do a wormhole or something fantastical that’d get you there in a blink of an eye, you’re probably going to use so much energy you’re not going to come right back.
The people who go probably aren’t going to come back at all. So the mindset is completely different. You’re leaving what you knew and having to commit yourself to a new society.
Is there anything you think might be similar?
When I was in space I felt this incredible connection to the universe, not just to the Earth but to another star system.
If I were thousands of light years away it was OK because I felt that connection. What you’re going to have to work on is your connection to the universe psychologically. No matter how much tech we do, we’re social creatures.
Would you go up there yourself if you could, even if it meant you might not come back?
In a heartbeat. The only thing I’d want to do is carry my cat with me! Some people want to go, some don’t.
That’s why it’s important we connect it back to life here on Earth. There’s an African proverb that says ‘no one shows a child a sky.’ Every culture, every society has wondered about the stars and what’s above us.
“The reality is the reason we’re not on the Moon is nothing to do with technology”
So what happens next?
The plan is always around getting more people involved and getting more funding. You need funding not just for research but for the everyday functions.
Our members are volunteers and it’s about giving them an opportunity to help chart the future.
Let’s think about where we are in terms of space exploration. Last Sunday was the 45th anniversary of Apollo landing on the moon. I love Buzz Aldrin. He’s one of my friends. He looks very much forward to the future but generally we look back towards Apollo as the glory days. That really bothers me because it says we’re stuck. We’re not. It’s a matter of commitment.
The reality is the reason we’re not on the Moon is nothing to do with technology. It’s about public commitment. We know how to do the Moon. We know Mars.
Most of it is not a technological issue – yes, there’s some issues around radiation but the reality is we know Mars’ address.
We’ve been to the surface. We can do a technological roadmap for that but it doesn’t push your imagination as much. What pushes us and make us think of doing things differently is the idea of going someplace uncharted.
Images courtesy of NASA