Dr. Mae C. Jemison's impressive career will always be highlighted by one notable achievement. But she wants the world to know that she is focused on frontiers that still lie ahead.

"People want to keep holding you back there and I'm like, I have to go forward. There's other things in my life," she said in an interview Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before taking the stage before a sold-out audience at the University of Colorado's Macky Auditorium as part of the Leo Hill Leadership Speaker Series.

"I've worked in developing countries and refugee camps and I've spent a lot of time on education. So for me, the biggest issue is, how do you continue to move on?" she asked.

"How do you continue to have a life where things are defining you as 'the astronaut lady,' right? ... My feelings about it is, the big takeaway is that I belong any place in this universe. And that was a wonderful feeling and I think I reach back for that any time I need to reassert why I'm here."

What put Jemison in the history books is her selection in June 1987 for the NASA astronaut program, leading to her being launched into space Sept. 12, 1992, as a mission specialist in the Space Shuttle Endeavor crew on STS-47, a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan.

That earned her the distinction of being the first woman of color to go into space.


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That was but one chapter of a life in which it seems there has been very little time devoted to looking at her old scrapbooks.

At 61, Jemison boasts a biography most people would need several lifetimes to match. She is now perhaps best known as the leader of the 100 Year Starship, a global initiative seed-funded through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to ensure the capabilities for human travel to another star in the next 100 years, while also transforming life on Earth.

Speaking a language that would not be unfamiliar to many Boulderites, she extolled the virtues of the process, almost as independent of when and whether the project's stated end goal is reached. She put emphasis on "not only the substance of what we're trying to accomplish, but how you get there."

Why does 100 Year Starship matter?

"Because it's a platform for accomplishing really difficult things, and those radical leaps and elevation in technology, and other human systems that we need in order to really successfully address the future," she said. "The basic part of this is that everything that we need to survive as a species on this planet mirrors what we need to get to an interstellar challenge."

Had assumed place in space

Challenges appear to have fueled Jemison's life the way other people are sustained by food, water and oxygen.

She has been an accomplished doctor, dancer, astronaut and chemical engineer. Starting at Stanford University at age 16 on a scholarship, she secured her medical degree at Cornell University before becoming a general practitioner in Los Angeles.

Jemison served as the area Peace Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia. While a professor at Dartmouth College, she focused on technologies for sustainability for industrialized and developing nations. She is the founder of two technology companies and the nonprofit Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which designs and implements STEM education experiences for students and teachers worldwide.

She also founded the Jemison Group, a technology consulting firm integrating critical sociocultural issues into the design of engineering and science projects such as satellite technology for health care delivery.

While best known for her eight days in space, fulfilling her ambition to get there was not a foregone conclusion for Jemison. She had first applied to the astronaut program in 1985, but the tragic Space Shuttle Challenger explosion two months later put the program temporarily on hold.

Writing about the experience in an essay for the New York Times in 2003, she recalled seeing her hometown of Chicago from space.

"It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl, I had always assumed I would go into space," she said. "When I grew up in the 1960s, 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."

That same little girl would likely have grinned, too, over what came just one year later. In 1993, she earned the distinction of becoming the first real astronaut to appear on an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Fitting for a woman who as a child was inspired by the character of Uhura as a young fan of the "Star Trek" show.

Targeting a day in August

She would be the first to say that all belongs to the past. On the immediate horizon, Jemison is excited also about Look Up, an effort to get people all over the world to — on a day this August yet to be selected — study the sky and post through use of an app their thoughts, feelings and observations from that experience, to enforce a global message that we are all earthlings.

The program is being promoted through the website LookUpOneSky.org, and has enlisted partners as far away as China.

"Isn't it incredible to think about, what are people looking at on the other side of the world while you're looking at your sky?" she asked. "It's the one thing that connects all of us. When people say there are no boundaries when you look down from space, well, there are no boundaries when you look up, either."

Despite presenting as a singularly accomplished woman uncowed by any challenges, she said she does not think in terms of an individual goal she is still chasing.

"I haven't looked at my life like that," said Jemison, who was scheduled Wednesday morning to participate in a question-and-answer session with students from across the CU community.

"If I had everything done, then what's the point of hanging around? And so there's always something new to see, to do, to find, right? If I want to know everything, that's not going to happen," she said.

"I think we all fundamentally want to know that it made a difference that we were here in some kind of way; that in someone's life that it made a difference that we were here."

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan