Science

Former astronaut aims to put us in another star system in the next 100 years

mae-jemison
Image Credit: Wikipedia

SAN FRANCISCO — Dr. Mae Jemison took the stage at TwilioCon, stunning attendees with tales from her days aboard the Explorer and her current goals to meld technology, entrepreneurial passion, and interstellar flight.

“I imagined myself in space, and I always assumed I would have the opportunity to go,” she said.

“That’s true with everyone. An African proverb says, ‘No one shows a child the sky.’ We’ve all looked up at the stars and wondered what they are. … That is what has shaped so much of my life.

“I was very lucky that I actually got to go into space.”

She also pointed out how space programs have spurred innovation time and time again.

“When people talk about the most innovative technologies, space is left out,” Jemison said. “Just the expertise, skills, and knowledge that’s required to go to space … that push came from the fact that you had to shrink things down for these exploration programs.

“All those huge datasets that people look at … that data has to be processed, and a lot of those algorithms come from the imaging we have to do in space.”

GPS, remote sensing, semiconductor materials — all these technologies, Jemison said, come from the space industry.

Her latest project is 100 Year Starship, which aims to foster “explosive innovation” so that some entrepreneur, scientist, or dreamer can be inspired and enabled to put humans in other star systems within the next 100 years.

“Sometimes you need radical leaps, not just little by little. … Humans need an adrenaline rushes,” she said.

“The only reason we don’t have a moon base isn’t because of technology; it’s because of public will. … That’s one of the big things we’re working on,” Jemison said. “We have to see ourselves in this. … Everyone has a role to play.”

To make this big vision come to life, she said, technologists, engineers, and visionaries need to create entirely new spacecraft and entirely new communications services. The scale and scope of the project is more vast than we can imagine: So far, the distance we’ve traveled into interstellar space (thanks to the longstanding Voyager mission) is equivalent to one mile on a cross-country trip. And that much distance has already taken 35 years to cross.

“We have to come up with new methodologies,” said Jemison. “We really have no idea what interstellar space is like. … And chemical fuel isn’t fast enough. You have to look at fision, fusion, and anti-matter. And this is just the energy.”

There’s also food, clothing, human cooperation, medicine — an exhaustive list of challenges that can only be solved by science, technology, engineering, and math.

“Communications is driven by human interactions,” said Jemison,” pointing out that global communications is dependent on yet another space technology: satellites.

Going from drumming as communication to the web as communication, Jemison continued, “It’s that kind of a leap we’re talking about” to achieve interstellar communication. There are issues of distance, signal strength, noise from stellar/planetary emissions, and even radiation left over from the Big Bang.

The Big Freaking Bang. That’s what we’re up against.

It’s going to take geniuses and insane innovators in telecommunications, photography, and big data; hardware hackers and robotics experts; business-minded money-makers and inspirational communicators; and many other types of technologists to make it all happen.

“Space isn’t just for rocket scientists and billionaires,” Jemison concluded. “It’s an inclusive, audacious journey that transforms life here on Earth and beyond.”