When Dr. Mae Jemison tries to get kids interested in science, she has a lot of tools at her disposal. There’s her chemical engineering degree from Stanford, her M.D. from Cornell, and her job as a professor at Dartmouth College. Of course, if that fails to impress, there’s always that trip aboard the space shuttle to fall back on — Jemison was one of seven astronauts on board the space shuttle
when it blasted into space in 1992. “Going to space was really cool, and I know that’s what everybody wants to know about,” Jemison says of her time at NASA. “But I didn’t spend six years in a corner twiddling my thumbs, waiting to go into space for eight days. There’s a lot of work in training and preparation to go up for that time period.”
These days, Jemison spends her time heading up the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries at Dartmouth as well as with The Earth We Share, a program that promotes basic science literacy. She’s also founded The Jemison Group, a private company that focuses on integrating science and technology into everyday life. No wonder, then, that Jemison is such a fan of a computer that does just that — the Mac.
Q: When did you start thinking about becoming an astronaut?
I always assumed I would go into space. When I was a little girl growing up, I always assumed that I would work in space and be involved in space exploration. It was just an assumption. I grew up in the Apollo days. And people might say, “How could you assume that?” because the United States wasn’t sending women up. But I just thought they were wrong. They would figure it out sooner or later.
Q: What was it like working for NASA?
My position at NASA was as a mission specialist astronaut. When I went into space, I was a science mission specialist. Being an astronaut is not just about going into space. I was an astronaut for six years at NASA, and during that time I did activities from getting the space shuttle ready for launch at Kennedy Space Center to testing the avionics software and helping design experiments that went up with the space shuttle. There are a lot of activities that you do that are about human exploration. Some of the experiences that were incredible to me was to see them lifting the shuttle — the part that looks like the airplane [which] we call the orbiter — and mating it with the two solid rocket boosters and an external tank, which is just an incredible feat of engineering. I spent a lot of time in Japan because my flight was with the Japanese space agency. To see their engineering techniques and how they work through problems was also something that I’ll always remember.
Q: Once you got to space, was it everything you expected?
That’s a hard question. People always ask that. I guess I just don’t look at the world that way. Because I think sometimes if you overly expect or imagine things too much, then you have an opportunity to miss what’s really there. So I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking, “Was it like I thought it was going to be.” It wasn’t Mr. Spock and
Worf wasn’t there.
Q: What’s the view like from up there?
We passed The Southern Lights; they were absolutely gorgeous, stunning. But that can’t be the focus of the mission, unless it’s to do the plasma physics associated with it. I remember passing over the Horn of Africa, absolutely incredible. I remember seeing the Nile and I had been there. Incredible views. Yet it’s important to understand that the work that you do there in weightlessness — for example, as a platform for studying biology — is key.
Q: Tell me about The Earth We Share program.
The Earth We Share was started in 1994, and its goal was to build a science literacy curriculum that was experiential in nature. I believe that the most important thing one gets from a science education is the ability to critically assess things and problem-solving skills. We wanted to create this program for 12- to 16-year-olds. The students tackle problems such as figuring out how many people the earth can hold, building the world’s perfect house. They have four weeks to come up with the solution.
Q: Do kids these days seem more well versed in science than earlier generations?
Kids are very interested in science when they are very young. They love to explore. But for some reason, they fall out of science and math between the ages of 12 and 16. With The Earth We Share, we try to get them back into science by giving them a problem and a framework to solve it and four weeks to solve it. We try to give them a hands-on approach to using science and technology for problem solving.
Q: How do Macs figure into your work?
We used iMovie to create our trailers for The Earth We Share. I also made an iMovie that used to be on the AppleMasters Web site; it was on African art. Also, eight student winners of an international essay contest in connection with The Earth We Share program went out for a day of adventure — to manufacturing plants, community art exhibitions, and so on — with various celebrities. All of these images were recorded, and we used iMovie to make two-minute blurbs about their experiences, which were later shown at a gala event. And of course, I do presentations on Macintoshes as well.