NASAMae Jemison doesn't see technology or engineering holding humans back from exploring outer space.
She sees something far more fallible getting in the way: humanity itself.
Jemison is the lead researcher on the 100 Year Starship project, a US government-funded study whose main task is drawing up the blueprint for the next 100 years of interstellar travel. It asks tomorrow's most pressing questions today, like: Where are we going? How will we get there? and What will we do once we arrive?
Jemison became the first black female astronaut when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. She's since become a physician, dancer, actress, and now a futurist.
At this year's TED Conference, Jemison spoke Tuesday on humans' troubling inability to get along with one another. People of different races, religions, and beliefs can barely exist in the same room with each other, Jemison says. How could we possibly travel to outer space together?
TED Conference/FlickrJemison uses global hunger as an example.
We have the means to solve global hunger, but we just don't behave in a way that allows that to happen. "It's an issue about sharing," she says.
That's really the heart of 100 Year Starship, she explains. It's not to foster interstellar travel for its own sake. It's to improve life on Earth while we plan for the future.
"Yes, we can talk about food, we talk about things like that," Jemison says. "But it's really how we see each other. How do we commit to long-term projects? How do we invest in a future that we may not see?"
The "starship" in 100 Year Starship is really a shorthand for talking about Earth. We probably have little hope of moving beyond our own home planet to explore others if we can't learn to mobilize the people here first. Any energy we put into future projects without first uniting toward a common goal will only produce better weaponry, Jemison says, rather than helping our species.
That kind of adversarial mindset is destructive.
"Look at how big this planet is," Jemison says. Total cooperation is a monumental task. "So if you look at a starship, we'd have to think about those things and how do we move them forward."