This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Space exploration worth risk, Jemison says

Former astronaut speaks at UB at Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration

Published: March 6, 2003

Reporter Assistant Editor

Space exploration is a human imperative, Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, told members of the audience at the annual Martin Luther King Commemorative Lecture, held Feb. 27 in the Center for the Arts Mainstage theater.

Jemison, who, as a member of the Endeavour crew in 1992 was part of the first shuttle team to fly after the Challenger disaster in 1986, was at her home in Houston when she first heard of NASA's loss of communication with Columbia on Feb. 1.



"My first reaction was to try to figure out what could go wrong, what are the possibilities, what is the survivability of it," said Jemison, who also is a physician and chemical engineer. She said her thoughts immediately went to crew members and their families when she realized that the Columbia was lost, but she stressed many times during her lecture that now is not the time to question space exploration, but rather to learn from and mitigate the risks involved. She said some may associate risk with carelessness in regards to space exploration, but that clearly isn't the case.

"You have never had so many intelligent, bright, committed, dedicated, caring people look after you as when you're an astronaut or when you're on the shuttle," she noted during a pre-lecture press conference.

"We lost part of the dream (with the loss of Columbia) and we need to get it back on track. I think that's why everybody identifies so much with it because it's part of our dream—we've all imagined going into space, we've wondered what space is like and it's one of the best things humans have done. It's incredible when you look at the composition of the crew. There were so many people from different places, from different backgrounds," she said.

Since her retirement from NASA in 1993, Jemison has established two technology companies, as well as organized and participated in philanthropic ventures in Africa and the U.S.

Her passions—fostering science literacy in the U.S. and the importance of scientific and technological advancement, as well as space exploration—were the focus of her lecture. She told the audience how she, as a "young, black girl growing up in the 1960s" on Chicago's South Side, always assumed that she would have the opportunity to go into space.

As a child, Jemison said she spent time lying on the ground on a summer's night staring up into space. "I could see myself there. I knew that I belonged there.

"I had to learn very early not to limit myself due to others' limited imaginations. I have learned these days never to limit anyone else due to my own limited imagination," Jemison said, adding that she had parents who instilled self-confidence in her and a mother who, as a school teacher, pushed Jemison to be not just science-oriented, but well-rounded in her education.

Science literacy, said Jemison, is about everyone being able to read a health care-related article in the newspaper, being able to understand it and how it applies to our lives, and being informed enough to vote on the issue.

"Science is investigated, engineering is advanced, technology is developed and education is offered, based on the will of the public. And that will depends directly on how well society and its leaders understand the pivotal role science and technology, research and policy, play in our everyday lives and who participates in making these decisions" she pointed out.

"I truly believe that 60-70 percent of all the problems we face in the world today, and will face in the years to come, have at the base of their solution science and technology, and the other 30 percent of the solutions are going to be random chance or pure luck," explained Jemison, who considers it a personal responsibility to motivate and educate others to think about such questions as, what is the best use of public funding? How does the U.S. want to spend its research dollars?

To be a good citizen in a participatory democracy, the public must realize it is a stakeholder in these kinds of issues, noted Jemison. Moreover, she believes it is important for everyone to have a vision of the world and realize that they—Americans especially—have the freedom to decide who and what they will become and that their decisions, unconsciously or consciously, shape the future. And in the process of expanding human frontiers, risks are involved and taking those risks is a noble act, "not just an adrenaline junkie's dream."

It is a fallacy, she said, to think that nothing will go wrong in the effort to extend human presence into space. "We're fighting for human advancement, to move the world ahead, for the advancement of human history—exploration always involves risk," Jemison said, reminding the audience of the achievements of Galileo and Columbus, which often came amid great personal jeopardy. And she acknowledged her own responsibility as a citizen of the world.

"I have to remind myself every day the contributions I make to this world's demise," Jemison said, noting the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and consciences stupidity.