• 02.16.16

The First Black Woman In Space Wants To Take Us Beyond Our Solar System

Moonshots are so 50 years ago. Why not a star shot?

The First Black Woman In Space Wants To Take Us Beyond Our Solar System
Photos: TED 2016

Mae Jemison was 12-years-old when Americans first landed on the moon in 1969. The event inspired her, as it did an entire generation, and she went on to become the first woman of color who went to space, aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992.


But she’s also sick of people talking about the moon landing, especially today’s technology innovators who like to evoke buzzword “moonshots” and sometimes reaching further back in history to the “Sputnick moment” of 1957. For someone to really remember the moon landing today, they have to be at least 54. For Sputnick? 68.

Jemison says the world needs fresh inspiration, and with her 100 Year Starship organization, founded four years ago with the help of a seed grant from DARPA, she is on a mission to make that happen.

In a talk at TED this week, she summed it up three words: Interstellar space travel.

Today’s thinking about space, says Jemison, is too marred in incrementalism and “baby leaps.” Even putting a person on Mars isn’t ambitious enough to foster the kind of radical leaps that will bring world-changing benefits to humans on Earth today. A manned Mars mission is still an ambitious engineering challenge but, she says, “we know how to do Mars.” The plan for that mission can be written down already, in other words.

To get to humans out of our solar system, we would need innovation in almost every aspect of technology, health, and social science, she says: energy, propulsion systems, farming, microbiology, religion, nutrition, and psychology, to name only a few. The biggest challenge would be solving challenges of human behavior–how do you organize social structures when the people on board will be isolated for decades?

In today’s environment, where lawmakers can’t even agree on passing a federal budget and NASA faces continued cash struggles, imagining such a star-shot seems almost delusional. With its work in public engagement and interdisciplinary collaboration, 100 Year Starship is working to reframe the question as one that looks at how the world would leverage every advancement towards interstellar travel to benefit humans on Earth today. Her organization has brought together experts in disparate fields, including textile designers, biomedical engineers, religious scholars, and science fiction authors, to discuss the challenges in public symposiums. Last year, it held its first award for interstellar sci-fi writing, and a hackathon is coming up soon, she says.


“We need to have that adrenaline rush as humans, that’s where we need to go,” she says. “We need to have an inspiring inclusive collective vision for humanity.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.