History and possibility

After her historic career as an astronaut, Mae Jemison will share insights past and present in Indianapolis. 

Story by Tony Knoderer

Going into space is a remarkable voyage for anyone. For Mae Jemison, it was a journey that began in her Chicago childhood, took her to Stanford University and Cornell University, continued into professional life as a medical doctor and as an engineer, and even sent her into service in West Africa and in Cambodian refugee camps. 

And there were, of course, her six years as an astronaut. A notable accomplishment in its own right, her career with NASA carries a historic distinction: Jemison was the first woman of color in the world to go into space.

Her lifelong journey continues today. Jemison now leads 100 Year Starship, a project whose goal is to help humanity travel beyond our solar system within the next 100 years.

So she speaks from experience when she talks to people about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and service. 

Photo courtesy NASA

Message and mission
Jemison will address the Leading For All Kids Keynote Session on Friday, June 10, at the Kiwanis International convention. In many ways, Kiwanians make the perfect audience for her. After all, Jemison’s life and work have been extraordinary, but they also give her a message that resonates particularly with those who see the potential in young people and want to make the future brighter for them.

Of course, there’s her current work with 100 Year Starship, which was created to help accelerate the knowledge, technology, design and thinking that are required to expand the frontiers of human space travel. But there’s also her story, which is a testament to the horizons of personal possibility. 

Such possibility is at the core of Kiwanis service, which supports Kiwanis International causes that include education and literacy and the development of leadership skills. For members, that fact makes Jemison a person with a message about our mission — because personal horizons are where an individual’s skills can make an impact on the world at large. And far beyond it.

Providing inspiration
When Jemison boarded the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992, she made history as the first woman of color in space. But she also did her work — performing experiments in material science, life sciences and human adaptation to weightlessness. 

That’s another key to Jemison’s significance. In addition to history, her continuing status as a working professional provides an equally important form of inspiration: an example. 

Jemison has previously referred to exposure, experience and expectation as “the three Es.” She considers them crucial to helping students with an aptitude for STEM stick with those subjects — maybe even into their own careers. The idea is to see that a possibility exists because someone serves as an example, and then to gain the knowledge of hands-on experience. After that, there’s the expectation that a kid can succeed and achieve. 

Photo courtesy NASA

Much of her adult life has been devoted to providing those E’s. In 1994, for example, she founded the international science camp The Earth We Share (TEWS) for 12- to 16-year-old students from around the world. TEWS is a program of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (DJF), which held the TEWS-Space Race from 2011 to 2014 in collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District — training thousands of middle school students and hundreds of middle school teachers in experiential science education. 

So many of Jemison’s accomplishments also serve as ways to reach out, to show people of all ages what’s possible and why it’s worth trying. 

The list goes on. She is Bayer Corporation USA’s national science literacy ambassador. She is one of the series hosts for National Geographic’s “One Strange Rock” and space operations advisor for its global miniseries “MARS.” She’s an author of books, including a series on space exploration. She’s the first real astronaut to appear on a “Star Trek” TV series and she’s a LEGO figurine in the LEGO Women of NASA kit. 

Jemison is also an inductee of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the International Space Hall of Fame and others.

And soon, she’ll be at the Kiwanis International convention — bringing a lifetime of experience and accomplishment to folks who share her passion for possibility.

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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