Dr. Mae Jemison Interview

In conjunction with a feature article in the February, 2001 issue of SuperScience, Dr. Mae Jemison and hundreds of Scholastic classrooms participated in a live online interview on March 15, 2001.

MODERATOR: What was it like being up in space? Was it scary, was it fun, or was it magical?

MAE JEMISON: Being in space has many qualities to it. I was not afraid, I was very excited and happy. The biggest thing is you can look out the window and you can see Earth, and you can see the sun, and you can see the stars, and they are very clear. So that's magical. On the other hand, you can also float around — it's a lot of fun. It feels very different from being on Earth.

Q. Do the planets look different from the space shuttle than they do from here on Earth?
While we're orbiting Earth in the shuttle, the sky looks exactly as it looks here on Earth, except that the stars are brighter. So, we see the same planets, and they look the same way as they look here.

Q. When you are taking off in the space shuttle, what does it feel like?
It takes about eight minutes to get from the Kennedy Space Center into orbit. During the last four minutes, you feel a lot of pressure across your chest. You feel like you weigh about three times what you weigh on Earth. We orbit Earth at about 260 miles above the surface.

Q. What were the results of the motion-sickness experiment you conducted while you were orbiting in the space shuttle? Which worked better for it, medicine or biofeedback?
When scientists conduct experiments, they have to include lots of different people in order to know whether the experiment works. I was just one person who tried the feedback training during the space-shuttle flight. During my NASA training, I learned how to control my response to space motion sickness. Biofeedback worked for me, but because we didn't include a lot of people in the experiment, we don't know if will work for everyone.

Q. Could you explain how astronauts use the restroom in space? Where does waste from the space-shuttle toilet go?
The toilet in the space shuttle looks like a toilet on an airplane. It has suction on it, like a vacuum. There are two kinds of waste — solid waste and urine, which is liquid. In space, we exhaust the liquid waste to the outside, because it's just like water and turns into ice crystals. We compact the solid waste; then the toilet is emptied and cleaned at the Kennedy Space Center.

Q. What antigravity training did you have to go through?
There's no such thing as antigravity training. That's one of those misconceptions that people have. Gravity is everywhere — it's just that we're weightless when we're flying on the shuttle. But gravity is all around you.

We do several things to train for weightlessness. Sometimes we train in a big pool of water called the "neutral buoyancy trainer." We put on our extra-vehicular-activity suits (the big white suits), and then we remain neutrally buoyant — we don't float and we don't sink. All the astronauts who are up in space are now trained this way. There is a trainer we use that makes us truly weightless. It's a big airplane called the KC-135. It flies in parabolas — big "u" shapes — up and down. It's like a big roller coaster. At the top of the loop, you have about 20 seconds of weightlessness.

Q. Did you have to do workouts in space to keep up your muscles?
When you are weightless in space, your muscles start to weaken because you're not carrying your body weight. So, you do need to do exercises to keep your body from "deconditioning" — that 's the word we use at NASA. You need to do other kinds of exercise to stress your muscles so they continue to stay strong. Most important, the heart is a muscle. In space, you need to exercise your heart since it's not pumping blood around at the same rate. On the shuttle, we did things like ride bicycles — but they were stationary bikes that didn't go anywhere!

Q. What did you eat in space? Did you ever get sick?
We actually eat food that we carry up — different types. Some is regular food (people carried up chocolate!). We also take up things that are freeze-dried — you add water and it plumps when you cook it. Things like oatmeal, chili, shrimp cocktail, chicken à la king. We also carry food in foil pouches that's like canned food, and we heat that up. Lots of different food! But there's no Tang, and there's no space ice cream!

Q. Are you planning to go into space again?
I'm no longer with NASA; I haven't been since 1993. But I'd love to go into space again if there were a mission to Mars. I'd also love to go to a completely different planetary system, out of our solar system. We'll have to see!

Q. How long did it take you to become an astronaut? What courses did you study to become one?
Well, it depends on how you look at it! In one sense, I was in training from when I was born until I became an astronaut, because as an astronaut, you use all the skills you learn in life. There are certain requirements to be an astronaut: You have to have a Bachelor of Science degree in a science field — for example, chemistry, biology, physics, or engineering. To be a pilot, you also need to have at least 1,000 hours of flight time in high-performance aircraft. To be a mission specialist — the ones who do the space walks and experiments — you need at least three years of experiments in your chosen field. Most astronauts have a doctorate — either a Ph.D. or an M.D.

Q. What courses should I take in high school if I want to go to space?
As we talked about before, in order to be an astronaut right now, you need a Bachelor of Science degree in a science field. So you need to take science classes like biology, chemistry, and physics. You also need to take math. But the most important thing is to be well-rounded — you need to know what's going on in the world around you.

Q. What area of science were you interested in when you were in fourth grade?
In fourth grade, I was interested in all areas of science. I particularly loved learning about how the earth was created. I describe that in my autobiography — how I wanted to know how life evolved, how we ended up here, and how big space was.

Q. What do you like most about being a scientist?
What I like most is that I get to use my creativity. So, I get to think about problems and come up with new ideas about how to solve them. It's wonderful to be able to learn about the world around you and try to help other people understand the world around them.

Q. What did it feel like to be the only African-American female in your NASA class?
In college, very often I was the only African-American woman in many of my classes and work environments. There hadn't been many African-American women in some of the schools I attended — in engineering, for example. So, at NASA I felt fine because I'm used to working with other people, and I'm comfortable with myself. It would be nice — and I think it will be nice — to have more and more people of all kinds involved with space exploration.

Q. What is the greatest challenge you have faced?
The biggest challenge we all face is to learn about ourselves and to understand our strengths and weaknesses. We need to utilize our strengths, but not so much that we don't work on our weaknesses. Weaknesses are not just, "Oh, I'm not good in this subject." Your weaknesses might also include impatience or even trying too hard. You might have to learn when to let go, or when to keep going. The biggest challenge is to overcome the things in yourself that keep you from moving forward. When you do that, then dealing with challenges outside yourself becomes easier.

Q. What areas of science are you active in right now?
The work that I do now really focuses on designing technology, so that as many people around this planet can share in our resources.

Q. How can someone get involved with your current work to bring environmentally sound technology to third-world countries?
We have an international science camp called The Earth We Share (TEWS). The work we do there is very important. The camp is a four-week residential program for students aged 12 through 16. This year the camp will be held at Willamette University in Portland, Oregon. TEWS builds critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to promote science literacy. At the camp, students come together from around the world to solve problems. We do things like predict the hot public stocks of the year 2030, and design the world's perfect house.

Q. My friend and I are great dancers and we would like to know what kind of dancing you do. Did dancing help you become a scientist?
I love dancing! I took all kinds of dance — African dancing, ballet, jazz, modern — even Japanese dancing. I wanted to become a professional dancer.

Dancing was great for many reasons. It helped me with stage fright. Now it's easy for me to get up in front of people and talk and express my ideas. It's also great for discipline. To be a dancer, you have to practice constantly, be precise in your movements, and remember large combinations of steps. And sometimes things hurt. So you have to be very diligent. Dancing is a skill I'm happy to have, and it's a great profession.

Q. Can you dance in space? Did you? What does it feel like?
Yes, you can dance in space, and I did! It felt very free. For example, I could spin ten times around, which I can't do here on Earth. I could do wonderful arabesques and other leg lifts. I could do wonderful leaps — but I didn't come down. So, it was great!

Q. How do you feel when you think about the Challenger disaster?
The Challenger accident makes us all remember that space exploration with humans is not something to take for granted. But it's not unexpected that accidents will happen — whether in space exploration, underwater exploration, or going into different areas of the world. The important thing is not to take unnecessary risks. You must understand the best you can what problems exist, and figure out how you can get rid of those problems, or how you can develop backup systems.

I called it an accident, not a disaster that destroyed space exploration. Accidents have happened and will happen. But you don't stop getting into cars just because there was an accident. You just have to figure out ways to make it safer.

Q. Have you done everything that you wanted to do in life? If not, what else would you like to do?
I certainly hope I haven't done everything I wanted to do in life! Otherwise, why would I still be here?

Q. What tips can you give young girls about achieving their dreams?
First of all, I think people have to stop using the word dream, because it implies something you can't do. I like to say, "What do you intend to do?" So, the question becomes, "How will you do what you intend to do?"

First of all, understand that sometimes other people won't have the same vision of you that you have of yourself. Don't accept other people's limitations as being reality. Also, understand that you have as much right as anyone else to be in this world, and to be in any profession you want. That's the most important thing — you don't have to wait for permission.

Q. What are you doing to encourage kids to go to space?
It's important to realize that space exploration is not just astronauts going up on the space shuttle. It includes — and the space program needs — the people who get the shuttle ready for launch and who design the rockets and equipment. The space program also includes the physicians and the secretaries. It includes the people who design the experiments and analyze the data. I don't say that everyone should go into space, but that space exploration includes room for many people, no matter what kind of work they do.

Q. Whom do you admire or look up to now?
I admire many different people. I certainly admire and look up to my father, and to my mother, who has passed away. One person who I think is incredible is Jimmy Carter. Because of the work that he's done, both as a President — his stand against neutron bombs — and the work that he does now, which includes making sure that people in developing countries get a fair stake in our resources. I also admire and look up to all kinds of people. For example, a woman I went to school with, Professor Carol Espy-Wilson, who works at Boston University in the electrical engineering department and does voice-recognition work for computers. She is an African-American woman.

Q. Do you have a motto?

Q. Why did you write the book Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments From My Life? Do you want to write any more books?
I wrote Find Where the Wind Goes because I wanted to let people know about the importance of continuing to journey through life — it's never over. There are lessons all along — you can pay attention or not. But there are always hints about being in the world and doing what you want. And I wanted to talk with teenagers and adults to let them know that we get to make choices — we're responsible for what happens. I don't know which ones, but yes, I'll write more books — I'd love to write a science-fiction novel. And I'd love to be in a science-fiction movie!

Q. Is there anything you would like to add before we sign off?
Thanks to everyone who signed on. One of the best stories that I've heard is that we're all on this spaceship earth. As passengers, we need to pay our fare. So, we should understand what kind of contributions we can make to this world. They're different for every person, but we should make sure that we pay our fare.

This concludes our live interview with Dr. Mae Jemison. Thank you for participating!

Dr. Jemison's autobiography, Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments From My Life, was published by Scholastic this year. To order, call 1–800–SCHOLASTIC.


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