Peace Corps Medical Officer Mae Jemison Chosen to Lead the 100 Year Starship Project

With Nasa scaling back its manned space programs, the idea of a manned trip to the stars may sound audacious, but the 100 Year Starship (100YSS) study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible. The goal is not to have the government fund the actual building of spacecraft destined for the stars, but rather to create a foundation that can last 100 years in order to help foster the research needed for interstellar travel.

Now DARPA has provided $500,000 in seed money to help jumpstart the effort and chosen Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to go into space, to lead 100YSS. Jemison, who is also a physician and engineer, left NASA in 1993 after a six-year stint in which she served as science mission specialist aboard space shuttle Endeavour, becoming the first black woman to fly in space. Since leaving the space agency, she has been involved in education and outreach efforts and technology development.

Rounding out her resume, Jemison also served as a medical officer for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia, is a professionally trained dancer, speaks Russian, Swahili and Japanese, and was the first real astronaut to make a cameo in an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Jemison won the contract with her proposal titled “An Inclusive Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth & Beyond.”

Read Jemison’s Essay from 2004 in which she remembers her service in NASA and in the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone:

What Was Space Like? by Mae Jemison

My senior year in college, I was trying to decide whether to go to New York to medical school or become a professional dancer. My mother told me, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.” I decided to attend Cornell University Medical College, but I also took dance classes. I built a dance studio in my house, and I still dance.

In the early 1980’s, I served as a doctor for Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa. Within the first two weeks I was there, a volunteer got sick. Another doctor diagnosed malaria, but after the man had been on chloroquine for 24 hours, it didn’t look like that to me. He got progressively worse, and at 2 a.m., after a power failure in the hospital, I started rummaging around our medical unit with a flashlight to find antibiotics for a broad-based medical cocktail.

I was sure it was meningitis with life-threatening complications that we could not treat successfully in Sierra Leone, so finally, I called for a military medical evacuation on an Air Force hospital plane based in Germany. Just to start the process cost $80,000. When I gave the order, the U.S. Embassy personnel just looked at me. I was 26.

They started questioning whether I had the authority to give such an order. Yet, after being up for 36 hours — familiar territory for a former Los Angeles County hospital intern — I was very calm and knew what the issues were. I patiently told them I didn’t need anyone’s permission or concurrence. By the time we reached the Air Force hospital in Germany, I had stayed up with that patient for 56 hours. Of course, he survived.

In November 1985, I applied to NASA to enter the astronaut program, but the Challenger accident in January put the process on hold. I was finally selected in June of 1987 and reported to Houston in August. I flew on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. (I resigned from NASA the next year to start my first company, and in 1999, I started BioSentient.)

People ask, “What was it like”to fly on Endeavor?” That’s like asking, “What was France like?” You have to smile and answer, “What part? The food? The people? Paris?”

So I ask them if they’re talking about the launch itself, my job on the space shuttle or floating in space, for instance. But how would you describe floating in space to someone who’s never done it? I say it’s fun — you get to move anywhere you want, you have incredible leaping abilities and hang time — but it takes some getting used to. You have to stay close to a wall or something so that you can propel yourself.

The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown. I was working on the middeck where there aren’t many windows, and as we passed over Chicago the commander called me up to the flight deck.

It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl I had always assumed I would go into space. When I grew up, in the 1960’s, the only American astronauts were men. Looking out the window of that space shuttle, I thought if that little girl growing up in Chicago could see her older self now, she would have a huge grin on her face.