Pioneering Astronaut Mae Jemison Offers Insight and Forward Thinking to New National Geographic Channel Series “One Strange Rock”

Renowned Astronaut Dr. Mae Jamison (photo via
by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, GBN Editor-in-Chief

Recently, Good Black News was invited to cover the launch of “One Strange Rock,” a ten-part space/science series on the National Geographic Channel that premieres Monday, 3/26, and is hosted and narrated by Will Smith. It is director Darren Aronofsky‘s (“Black Swan,” “mother!,” “Requiem For a Dream”) first foray into television, and the series is produced by Jane Root through her production company Nutopia. It is a cinematic look at Earth from a variety of perspectives – from space, from the sea, from the desert – and across all continents.

From the episodes I’ve seen, “One Strange Rock” is a gorgeous, meditative, eye-opening look at our planet, and Smith is a welcome, friendly guide along the journey to get to know Earth and all its ecosystems in ways we haven’t seen or previously considered. But what honestly got me excited about “One Strange Rock” was the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female to travel into space (and one of my personal she-ros) to speak with her about her participation in “One Strange Rock,” as well as her other current projects (100 Year Starship and Look Up).

As I start to record the interview (this is moments after I fangirl and tell Dr. Jemison I dressed up as her one Halloween, entered a costume contest and won a 25-dollar gift card to Virgin Records), I state into my Voice Memo app the date, time, and that I’m about to interview Dr. Mae Jemison, she charmingly interrupts.

Mae Jemison: How about if we do it in Star Date Time? 2018.01.13, right?

Good Black News: Way better! That’s a Trekkie for you! I appreciate that, thank you, Dr. Jemison. Well, first I want to ask you about your involvement in “One Strange Rock.” Why, of all the different entities out there covering space, space travel, space exploration, did you want to lend your voice to this project?

MJ: So “One Strange Rock” is the story of the extraordinary journey of Earth. It’s about our home planet and how we went from this collection of rock and gases to something that supports life and an incredible diversity of life, and I wanted to be a part of that. When people think about space, so frequently they think about it just as the stars and the pictures and images and the rockets. But actually, space allows us to see our world that we live on. Space allows us to understand that when we look up at the stars, we’re actually made of the stuff of stars. Right? Inside of us is the heart of an old star. Doesn’t that make you feel like you belong to this universe and that you’re supposed to be here?

Absolutely. So is your hope with this particular project that more people will get that understanding that there isn’t a separation?

MJ: “One Strange Rock” does this incredible thing – it takes us from the smallest microbe, or to how oxygen is generated in small bubbles, all the way to the vistas of continents or being able to see our atmosphere, and connects it together. And so for me, one of the things we need to understand at some point in time – we’ve got to figure this out – is that we’re Earthlings and that we’re connected to this planet. So when I went into space, one of the things that happened to me is that I had an affirmation of something that I always believed. You know when people say, “Save the Earth”? They’re mistaken – the Earth will be here. The difference is, can we act in such a way that it continues to support our life form? You see, what “One Strange Rock” shows is how integrated life is on this planet and we as humans are part of that life. If we go to another world – just go to the space station – we have to carry some of the Earth with us. We have to carry that environment with us because this is where we evolved, this is where we developed. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t leave – obviously I want to leave -I want to go and explore other places. But it’s the recognition that there are a… unique series of coincidences, events and everything that led us to this day, to humans, to me sitting talking to you. And they started billions of years ago.

So with all of that, you talk in the first episode about the “Overview Effect” – about seeing the planet and essentially what you just communicated to me. How do you get people who don’t have the opportunity to go into space to understand that boundaries and countries and all of these things that we do as human beings to identify in all these different ways is a way of looking at Earth that isn’t going to help foster the survival of our species?

MJ: So I want to make one thing clear – I know a lot of astronauts talk about the “Overview Effect” – that everything belongs right here on this planet – for me when I went into space… I knew damn well that water crosses from one country to another, that our sky is over different countries and weather affects everyone. What “One Strange Rock” does is help people to understand and feel that. So I can maybe mumble words and give you statistics and stuff, but it’s not the same thing as having that emotional connection. What I’m so proud about with “One Strange Rock” is that it takes images from lots of different countries, from African countries, from South American countries – it goes down underneath the Earth and goes up to the top. And all those things help us to see this planet and the imagery from people, to animals, to… desolate locations. And so, it’s not so much again about mumbling the words, or even saying the words very clearly, it’s about allowing people to see and be there with you. And not just from space, because we get down to the detail. We see kids playing, we see folks who’ve been collecting salt for generations from one location. All of those things are important for us to understand our connectedness to this world. And it’s not about preaching and it’s not about how fast the Space Station is orbiting the Earth or any of that kind of stuff – it’s that vantage point.

Earth view from International Space Station with aurora visible. (credit: NASA)

And once we have that vantage point… I know a project you are in charge of right now, 100 Year Starship, is about trying to figure out how do we as Earthlings find another space to inhabit at some point, right?

MJ: 100 Year Starship is about making sure the capabilities exist for human travel beyond our solar system to another star. I was fortunate enough to lead the team that won the modest seed funding grant from DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and the grant was to create an organization to make sure in 100 years we have these capabilities. What does that mean? It means there is not a launch date, but it’s about the capabilities. Going to another star is completely different from going to Mars it’s not like “Star Trek” – we don’t get to whip around. We have to be able to survive for tens of years, right? We have to first of all have to be able to go fast enough to produce energy on a scale that we have no idea how to do right now. Or maybe we have some ideas how to do it, but we don’t have the capabilities or the engineering to do it. We have to learn how to sustain our microbiome. Right now we’re understanding that the little microbes that are all throughout our body help us to absorb the nutrients from our food. They protect our skin – they do all these kinds of things. But we have to keep it healthy, we have to take it with us. If you’re on Earth it’s renewed all the time but we actually don’t know that much about it and we’re destroying it. You know what? We have to learn how to interact and behave with one another. Because if you’re going to be on something with maybe 500 or 1,000 people you guys are going to have to figure out how to interact well over a period of time. Guess what? All of those things are the same capabilities we need to survive as a species here on this planet. So what 100 Year Starship is, is to use this incredibly difficult challenge as a platform to really jump-start radical leaps in knowledge, science, and human systems. How do we think about it? Can we tell the story better? How do we have artists involved? The title of our proposal that won the grant was “An Inclusive, Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth and Beyond.” The first word is “inclusive.” I doubt if it hadn’t been me leading this project that the first word would be “inclusive.” Inclusive across ethnicity, gender and geography, and also across disciplines. So we need the social scientists as well as the physicists. We need the behavioral scientists and the life scientists as well as we need the computer engineers. Right?

And the poets.

MJ: And we need the financiers as well. And the reason I bring that up is because what “One Strange Rock” does is it includes everyone around the world in the iconography. What we see, what we talk about, how they tell the story. And there’s one other part of this – every group of people around the world has had space explorers. Space exploration didn’t begin in 1959 with Sputnik. It began thousands of generations ago when people started to track the movement of the heavens – we’re built on that… an African proverb says – it’s an Ashanti proverb – it says, “No one shows a child the sky.” It is fundamental to all of us. So I’m really excited that this series brings us and the world together and it talks about the interconnectedness and it allows you to be there and understand. We say it’s a science series, but I’m going to pull the word and say understanding. Because it’s about understanding our connection to this Earth. “One Strange Rock” is about understanding this extraordinary journey that our planet has had and that we are the beneficiaries of right now, today. And that we have to have some type of stewardship. And what I want to say is we’ve always been involved whether you go from back to “Hidden Figures” or we go to the people who were doing cardiovascular [Dr. Daniel Hale Williams]… I mean we’ve been here – we’ve been involved the entire time.

I have to ask you about “Hidden Figures.” Did you know about Katherine Johnson and her contributions to NASA?

MJ: I didn’t know about all the women. I did know that there were people who were doing stuff, but I didn’t know the specific stories. Now it’s really interesting because… that was done to all women. There’s a new book called “Code Girls” that talks about the women who helped to do code and translate cryptography. But isn’t it amazing how we left people out when we’ve always been there? Isn’t it amazing?

Uh, yeah!

MJ: And I think my job is to make sure that people are included. Around the world.

Right. Well in “One Strange Rock,” I was startled from the episodes I saw that you did get an inclusiveness in terms of seeing the whole planet and all the different countries in ways you’ve never seen these countries, and the wonders and the beauties within these countries that contribute to the whole Earth. The talking heads, though, are all American. Does that… the perspective…

MJ: You’re going to have to ask the producer, maybe, about how they chose people…

Okay. Can I ask you a question about astronauts? Because you all have a very, very unique understanding and connection to space and space exploration, and therefore your authority about the Earth is undeniable. But you worked… it was an International Space Station, so you worked with other astronauts from other countries. Did you find or feel that politics ever interfered in that, or when you were focused on the science and the mission it was Earthlings working together?

MJ:  Well, I was not on Space Station. I went up with the Japanese space agency. In fact, my mission was with the first Japanese national astronaut to go up with NASA, and so I spend a lot of time training in Japan. So I think when you’re on a crew, you work with the crew – it’s really not about the politics. Because you’re all up there in this thing together that you damn well figure out how to work together in it.


MJ: But let me just remind us that there have been astronauts from all around the world. The first black astronaut was actually from Cuba and went up with the Russians. Before Guy Bluford. So…

[Dr. Jemison and I share a good laugh.] I’m going to have to look up his name. [It’s Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez.]

MJ: The first woman to go into space was not Sally Ride, it was Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, who went up with the Russians. The first Indian astronaut [Rakesh Sharma] went up with the Russians. So we’re going to have to step back for a second as we start to look at this. And the U.S. now with the International Space Station, there’s lots of different people who’ve gone up… Brazil, different organizations. China has astronauts that are going into space. So where we are right now is a really interesting point in time where we have to figure out, how do we include the incredible talent and perspectives of this world in determining what we do with our potential, our knowledge, our resources, our technology. What ethics do we bring? What perspectives about who to benefit do we bring? One of the things that “One Strange Rock” does is it shows us the world. [The series is] going to be accessible and available, and what I hope people get from it is that they have a right to be involved. We’re all made of the stuff of stars, and we have a right to be here.

One more question. What is “Look Up”?

MJ: Look Up is something that we started – actually Jill Tarter, who co-founded The SETI Institute, and LeVar Burton – they’re both on the advisory board of 100 Year Starship. And one time we were sitting around trying to figure out how do we get people to understand about the sky and what’s there. And so it morphed over time into Look Up, where one day in August 2018, around the world, we want people to look up for 24 hours and post what they see.

Do you have the actual date in August?

MJ: We’re working on the date… we have different people involved, we want local events, other kinds of things… because if we don’t figure out that we’re Earthlings, we can kiss this goodbye. That’s the one thing that I thought of, and I think that “One Strange Rock” does an incredible job of is helping us to see our evolution and how we’re connected with this. And I hope that one day, we’ll look up.

3 thoughts on “Pioneering Astronaut Mae Jemison Offers Insight and Forward Thinking to New National Geographic Channel Series “One Strange Rock””

  1. Dr. Tommie Morton (Allen) Young was the first black to graduate (1955) from the famous Peabody College in Nashville, TN now Peabody/Vanderbilt University. She was named Distinguished Alumnae in 2010, and earned the Ph. D. from Duke University in 1977.

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