Astronaut Mae Jemison Talks Star Trek, Sci-Fi, And The Future Of Interstellar Travel
As a little kid, former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison knew she’d travel to space—seeing Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols in her role as Lieutenant Uhura, Chief Communications officer of the USS Enterprise, made her even more certain.
Over the course of her insanely impressive career as a physician, engineer, astronaut, and TNG guest star, Jemison has held onto the opinion that science fiction is an important tool for education, inclusion, and innovation. Ahead of her Trek Talks session at TIFF next week, Dr. Jemison talked to us about where her strong affinity for the show (and sci-fi in general) comes from.
Space: As a young fan of the series, were you conscious of what Star Trek was trying to do in terms of commenting on issues like feminism, environmentalism, and race or was it something you came to appreciate later on?
Mae Jemison: I started watching the original Star Trek series when I was a little kid. I was fascinated by the science of it and about space exploration, but I did recognize that it commented on a lot of things. Particularly some of the race issues. There was one episode where an Abraham Lincoln kind of character showed up and called Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) a ‘negress’, saying, ‘I didn’t mean any harm’—and the episode talked about how we’ve evolved beyond that point. So there were many moments where I recognized that there was a social commentary.
In high school I was reading science fiction like 2001 and Food of The Gods. I recognized at the time that it was a reflection on society and science. What really good science fiction does is to allow you to reflect on yourself, your values, and your beliefs. It uses a fictionalized science as a mechanism to push us to think about what we’re doing—society is influenced by technology and the technology is influenced by society, our aspirations and who we think we are. An example I like is: Do you use a certain combination of minerals for a beautiful fireworks display or to propel a bullet?
What did it mean to you see someone like Lt. Uhura on screen?
I appreciate and love the character Uhura but I like many characters on Star Trek. I wanted to be like Mr. Spock because of the science and the intellect. It was really important that Lt. Uhura was there because it represented that lots of different people had abilities. As a kid I was irritated that the astronauts were always male—they were white males. It was really quite irritating that if aliens were to run into them that they wouldn’t recognize the full beauty of our planet and all the people on it.
I remember being very irritated about that as a child. I declared when I was in kindergarten that I was going to be a scientist and my teacher said ‘Don’t you mean a nurse?’ I said, ‘No. I mean a scientist.’ [Star Trek] told a lot about a hopeful future where we were able to get past our differences.
This is a pretty scary time in history for women, minorities, and anyone who cares about the environment—in your opinion, what can scientists and artists do to work towards something closer to the quasi-utopia we see in Star Trek?
One of the big issues is what I call “reality testing.” Reality testing and the ability to understand the answers that reality gives you when you test it is about education. A lot of what we’re encountering now has to do with a lack of science literacy. The issues around the environment, climate, and biodiversity—it’s a fundamentally catastrophic future that awaits us, but for some reason people are comfortable comparing the economy to the environment. One of them is essential for life. Period. The economy is a tool for exchanging goods and services. Oxygen, biodiversity, the microbiome in the soil, those things are essential for our life.
The lack of science literacy, or appreciation for some fundamental concepts—that’s about being aware of the fact that if you go down one road, it may be irreparable. The issue is whether or not we see ourselves integrated as a part of this world.
That’s what science fiction does so well: it helps you take some of those questions somewhere else, where it’s not so close to home, so that you can come up with another way of thinking about things.
How do we get back? I think education makes a really big difference. People are fearful. If we don’t make information understandable and digestible then people are going to maintain their fear.
Do you have a favourite Star Trek movie or episode (in addition to the one you were in)?
There are a couple. I like the first encounter with the Borg. There was a quote that I often use from “Q: Who”: “If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.” I thought that was particularly poignant because then Picard shows him that he’s not the most advanced thing out there.
It’s very prescient for what’s been going on and what’s happening now. With 100 Year Starship (Jemison’s current project), my effort is about making sure the capabilities exist for interstellar travel. We’re using interstellar travel as a platform for jump-starting new technologies, new disciplines, new innovations. One of those includes global ambition—how do you create a way of seeing ourselves as Earthlings? That’s one of the things about Star Trek: it helped us see ourselves as Earthlings.
Astronaut/engineer/doctor/Trekkie Mae Jemison will be at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday, December 5, where she’ll take part in the Trek Talk series and deliver a keynote on the interplay between arts and science, and how sci-fi as a genre can carve out a space for often-excluded voices. Tickets are available to purchase at tiff.net or at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Box Office.