NASA astronaut encourages action, responsibility

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, shared her views on achieving dreams at East Carolina University Sept. 5. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

By Judy Currin
ECU News Services

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself,” Dr. Mae Jemison told an audience at East Carolina University Sept. 5.

Jemison, the first African American woman in space, said there is “a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on Earth.” Her advice to the crowd at the Voyages of Discovery Lecture Series presentation, “What the hell, leap!”

The physician, dancer and NASA scientist orbited the Earth aboard the space shuttle Endeavour Sept. 12, 1992. At ECU, she presented “Exploring the Frontiers of Science and Human Potential,” in celebration of 50 years of diversity on campus.

Science and technology are only as effective as the ways they are used to improve human life, Jemison explained.

She said people think of technology as something having silicon in it. A pencil is technology. Any language is technology. It’s a tool, she said, we use to accomplish a particular task whether it’s fire or solar electricity.

“The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown,” she said. “It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl, I had always believed I would go into space.”

The self-described “wanna be hippie” grew up during the tumultuous 1960s. The civil rights movement of that era, she said, was “about breaking down barriers to human potential.” The events of that era helped her understand that the “best way to make dreams come true is to do something.”

She emphasized that empowerment means people should believe in themselves, acknowledge each person’s unique contribution and ultimately, take the risk to make that contribution. Each person shares in that responsibility, Jemison said.

“Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity,” she said.

Jemison recounted her struggles early in life trying to decide between a career in medicine or dancing. Her mother’s advice solved the dilemma, she said, with a reminder “that I could dance if I was a doctor, but I couldn’t doctor if I danced.”

After her medical education and a brief general practice, Jemison served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987. She resigned from NASA in 1993 to form a company researching the application of technology in daily life.

She has appeared on television several times, including an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of her favorite shows. She is a dancer, and holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters and the humanities.  She loves cats, hates to wash dishes, loves Star Trek, calculus, the big bang theory and dancing.

The next dream Jemison plans to pursue is with the 100 Year Starship Initiative, a project to enable human travel beyond the solar system within the next 100 years. The initiative has received grant funding to design, establish and implement the program.

With Jemison at the lead, the 100 Year Starship team is taking a leap.