Catching Up With Dr. Mae Jemison

By StarTrek.com Staff - September 10, 2012

The worlds of science, space exploration and science-fiction collided the week of May 24, 1993, when Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, guest starred on Star Trek: The Next Generation as Ensign Palmer in the episode “Second Chances.” LeVar Burton directed that episode, his first ever, and it was he who’d invited Dr. Jemison to appear in it. The worlds of science, space exploration and science-fiction will collide again September 13-16, 2012, when LeVar Burton, Nichelle Nichols, Dr. Jill Tarter, Miles O’Brien (no, not THAT one) and other notable figures – beam down to Houston, Texas to participate in “Transition to Transformation… The Journey Begins,” a public symposium presented by Dr. Jemison’s forward-thinking organization, 100 Year Starship, or 100YSS. StarTrek.com recently caught up with Dr. Jemison, who found a few minutes in her hectic schedule to talk with us about 100YSS, her friendships with Burton and Nichols, her memories of shooting “Second Chances,” and more.

Give us a preview of the 100YSS 2012 Symposium…

Dr. Jemison: What people can expect is an immersion in trying to imagine, trying to create a global commitment to human interstellar space travel, to accomplishing all the tasks necessary to do that within 100 years. And when I say “immersion,” that means the hard, cold technical talks of where we are and where we need to be, whether you’re talking technically in terms of propulsion systems, communications systems, the kinds of political and command structures that might need to be in place, or self-renewing machines and equipment and eco-systems. Also, it’ll be about looking at understanding where we are right now, today, and what kinds of transitions we’ll have to make. How will we need to think about space differently in order to get to the point that we can do these really long-duration space missions?

Then there are the emotional pieces, which include being able to do a retrospective of 50 years of human spaceflight in Johnson Space Center, and considering where we’re going from there. Where are we going from that point, with NASA, with commercial spaceflight, in terms of humans in commercial spaceflight? What are some of the applications of space exploration here on Earth? We’ll be working with teachers and with students, and another piece I think folks will find really very interesting is a special event we’ll have on Saturday night called “Accelerating Creativity.” The whole point of it is to examine and, actually, to highlight for people the fact that fiction, art, culture and the suspension of disbelief actually push science and technology forward. We’re going to have a discussion about that using iconic characters, iconic films, iconic TV series and have a discussion with folks who are doing really interesting things.

LeVar Burton will be on that panel…

Dr. Jemison: LeVar will be on that panel for obvious reasons, and also because of his activism in education and other things, and his clear sense of this connection. Nichelle Nichols won’t be on that panel. She’ll be with us the evening before at the Johnson Space Center, celebrating Johnson Space Center and 50 years of human spaceflight, because she was so instrumental in the recruitment of women and minority astronauts for the shuttle program. It’s very interesting how these pieces come together.

Speaking of pieces coming together, September 12 will mark the 20th anniversary of you becoming the first African-American woman to travel in space, which you did aboard the shuttle Endeavour. How fresh is the memory of that experience?

Dr. Mae JemisonDr. Jemison: It’s pretty fresh. It’s one of those things you can almost slide yourself back to and remember all of your responsibilities. So it’s very fresh. It seems like it can’t possibly be that long ago, so I’m telling everybody I’m turning 20 this year, right? In some ways that’s when people came to know me, though I’d been around the block a couple of times. I actually remember that Nichelle called me in crew quarters the night before because she couldn’t come, because her mother was really sick. We had a great conversation the night before. It’s a really nice circle, isn’t it, having grown up having seen her on television and then sort of coming back around?

Let’s talk about “Second Chances.” What was your reaction when Burton reached out to you about appearing in the episode?

Dr. Jemison: I said, “Yeah, sure. I think it’ll be a great thing to do.” They wrote me in as Ensign Palmer. First of all, the crew was just really wonderful, very kind and warm. It was pretty easy (to play Palmer). I did a lot of performing arts growing up and through college. I did a lot of dancing on stage. It was a little surreal because here you are playing on this bridge that you’ve watched for years. That was interesting. The other thing was that Jonathan Frakes would talk and do all kinds of things up until the moment they said “Action,” and then he’d get back into his serious Riker character.

What about Burton? That was his first time behind the camera…

Dr. Jemison: He was great. They had to do those scenes where there are the two different Rikers. So I learned a lot about locking cameras down and all of that kind of stuff. He was wonderful and very kind to me. My only regret is I didn’t get my damn uniform. I was just so thrilled to be on the set that I forgot to say, “You guys have got to give me the uniform.”

Did your work on Trek give you the acting bug or did you know then and there it’d be a one-off, fun thing?

Dr. Jemison: I hosted a program called World of Wonder for a while. As I said, I’d done a lot of performing arts. Sometimes you have to choose what you do, but I think there’s something really important about having people who were really there, people who’ve really done these things, also participate, and I find sometimes that there’s a dearth of women who are included in sci-fi show hosting or science show hosting (opportunities). So I would love to do something like that.

Click HERE to learn more about 100 Year Starship and the 100YSS 2012 Public Symposium in Houston, Texas.


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