Most of us have trouble planning a week or two ahead, but Mae Jemison is busy thinking a century into the future—formulating what space travel will look like in 2112. The first African-American female astronaut, Jemison went into orbit in 1992 (see portrait) and has worn a mind-boggling array of impressive hats: physician, professor, business owner, nonprofit founder, and currently principal for a project called 100 Year Starship. Jemison, now 58, talked to Real Simple about her path to the galaxy and beyond.
Believe you can.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the third of three children. My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father always worked two or three jobs. I was a women’s libber at age seven. I didn’t believe in any of this foolishness about what women could and couldn’t do. Growing up during the Apollo era, I always assumed I would go into space.
Ask for what you want.
I was a doctor working at Cigna in California in my early 30s. I would like to say that NASA found out how wonderful I was and they came and found me, but it was as mundane as calling Johnson Space Center and asking for an astronaut application and having them not laugh at you. Anybody can send in an application, so when I was actually invited down for the interview, that was exhilarating.
Bring others with you when you soar.
[The first time I went into space] I took things representing people who ordinarily may not be included. I brought a flag from the Organization of African Unity, a certificate for Chicago public-school students, a poster of Judith Jamison performing a dance by Alvin Ailey. I took up a Bundu statue from the women’s society in Sierra Leone and a banner for Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest African-American sorority in the country.
Don’t let anyone define you.
I don’t fit in the boxes people like to put us in. Sometimes people want to stick you in one place and leave you there—forever in that little orange flight suit with the helmet. When I left NASA, I started [a technology design consulting company called] the Jemison Group. We helped develop a solar-energy system that creates electricity in the developing world. We worked on designing different medical devices. We started The Earth We Share, which developed a curriculum to keep kids engaged in science.
If there’s any thread that goes through my career, it’s about how we create mechanisms that are going to support humans in the years to come. The job of the 100 Year Starship, which is part of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, named after my mother, is to make sure capabilities exist in 100 years for interstellar flight, developing a means of pushing mankind to a neighboring star. For the most part, we know what we need to do to get to Mars. But if you’re going to put 5,000 people, for example, aboard a world ship and send them traveling for 50 years before they get someplace, they need enough wherewithal to continue to feed themselves and live. That means we have to learn a whole lot more about food and sustainability.
Shake things up.
I put together meetings where we involve physicists and engineers, but I also always have a wildcard in there. I love to have an economist and a theologian in the room, because they’re going to look at the data and information from a different perspective. I encourage others to take risks. But taking risks doesn’t mean putting people in danger. It means risking that you might do something other people won’t get right away, and they may laugh at you. Just as leadership isn’t really about being in charge: It’s about prodding and poking to get the best work out of people. It’s about using your place at the table and not always minding your manners.