To conclude the first day of USI 2018 presentations, Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, takes us on an intergalactic journey. What if, by looking at the sky, we could connect to our own planet and humanity?
“Your biggest challenges are usually inside you”
As an African-American woman born in Chicago in the 1950s, the cards were not stacked in Mae Jemison’s favor at her birth. And although the situation was not all rosy, the possibilities seemed endless. Civil rights movement demonstrations were multiplying, America had ended segregation, Europe was beginning to withdraw from its colonies, sports records were being beaten… In such a context, despite racial tensions which were still present, Mae Jemison’s parents encouraged her to pursue her dream: to become an astronaut and travel to space.
For Mae Jemison, the future does not depend on luck or destiny – it is up to us to create: “It’s what we do that makes the future”. Or, to quote Will and Ariel Durant, “The future never just happened. It was created”. For this astronaut-scientist, that is the whole beauty of an undertaking as ambitious as the space conquest. She urges us to deploy treasures of ingenuity to go beyond physical limits, to go ever further. “Pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow pushes us to embellish today.”
The conquest of interstellar space
What if we continued the space conquest? Whether because it’s useful (we need satellites to check the weather, for watching VOD, etc.) or from scientific ambition. Of course the exploration of Mars is still underway, but is that ambitious enough?
For Mae Jemison we should aim higher: interstellar travel. Let us aim for example for Alpha Centauri, the first star beyond our solar system. It is 25 billion miles from our planet. Today, spacecraft travel at an average speed of 35000 miles per hour, that will not get us to Alpha Centauri. That is the difference between an orbit close to Earth and an interstellar flight. “Space exploration must be different to get to another star system.” We must fundamentally change how we operate.
To reach a destination like Alpha Centauri, we need to design a spacecraft which can go faster and farther, and especially with greater autonomy. To do so, we need to connect all disciplines together, and make some important decisions to carry out this mission.
Choices for the mission… Or for the planet?
To achieve this interstellar mission, many decisions must be made, in areas as diverse as food choices and health. In matters of health, should we privilege replacing organs with 3D printing or in situ rejuvenation? For clothing, should we choose cotton, nice to wear but needing lots of resources and difficult to recycle in the short term, or more recyclable materials such as polyester? During the trip (which will last for quite some time), should we hibernate or stay awake (and thus age)? Should we be vegetarians or authorize meat, which again needs lots of resources? What about coffee, chocolate, alcohol? And when the mission finally reaches its goal, should we let individuals choose their activities on site depending on their wishes? Or should we impose predefined roles or roles pre-identified through predictive aptitude tests?
Mae Jemison’s intellectual projection is in fact an excuse for wondering about our planet: “the challenges of human interstellar travel mirror the challenges that we face in the world today”. If we are capable of taking up positions for a hypothetical interstellar voyage, can we not apply the same process to our planet? For Mae Jemison, it is indispensable to explore our governance, our education, our choices.
Before her captivated audience, Mae Jemison ends her talk with a quote from Helen Keller: “Science has found no remedy for the worst (evil) of them all – apathy in human beings”. We have everything we need to solve the problems of hunger in the world and global warming. We just need to involve every human being, to remind them that we are all earthlings.