Fifty years ago, on Dec. 7, 1972, the crew on the Apollo 17 moon rocket took a photograph of planet Earth. That famous image of Earth would become widely known as the “blue marble.”
With that image, people could actually see what this small, life-sustaining planet looks like from afar.
The photo captured the imagination of engineer and physician Mae Jemison when she was in high school. Jemison would later become a NASA astronaut herself — and the first woman of color to travel into space. She served as mission specialist on board the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992.
These days, Jemison leads the 100 year Starship project, a nonprofit whose hope is to launch interstellar travel within a hundred years. Jemison joined The World’s host Marco Werman to talk about that famous Earth image and how it has inspired her.
Marco Werman: I would love it if you could share a personal anecdote or recollection about that iconic blue marble photograph 50 years ago. What do you remember about seeing that picture for the first time?
Dr. Mae Jemison: I don’t have a single recollection. I knew that the Earth was a marble, right? I knew that it was this circular thing. What I do remember, because I was in high school at that time, is seeing the continent of Africa shown so clearly and the size and the fact that here was this planet that was so much, you know, all about where we live. And for me, having Africa in the center made a really big difference because it was during that time when, you know, we sort of saw different continents, different countries as not being as big a part of this world. And that put us clearly together. That’s what I remember about it.
Speaking of confirmation, what was that like when you go up in space, 1992, you’re on Endeavor and you see for yourself the actual big, blue marble. Did it look like the photo? I mean, just emotionally, what was going through your head?
Well, unfortunately, the shuttle only goes up to low Earth orbit. So, you see the arc of the Earth and you see the thin layer of atmosphere, this shiny, shimmering blue. The images that are most vivid for me are going across the Horn of Africa, crossing the Nile Delta. And there’s this just shimmering light that comes off of the desert. And I recognize that at one point in time, I’d been at the Nile Delta, right, I had been in Egypt. When I thought about the Earth, I thought about the fact that it’s in space, right? That right now, we’re in space. And it formed my connection with the rest of the universe. It wasn’t just sort of looking and thinking how small I am. It really was an expansive feeling to me that I am as much a part of this greater universe as any speck of stardust. And that was what happened to me when I was on the shuttle. If there was a change, the confirmation was around being a part of this greater universe and belonging here.
You’re seeing that thin layer of atmosphere, as you call it. I mean, in some ways I am guessing that could have been more pronounced in terms of your reaction than the photograph.
Well, that thin layer of atmosphere supports our life, right? That’s where our life comes from. And for me, the confirmation was that, you know, we as humans have this incredible home and we aren’t taking very good care of it and that the Earth will be here, but we may not be here if we continue to treat it in such a way that it doesn’t support our life form.
You’ve retired from NASA, but you’re still obviously an avid supporter of space exploration. To wit, your 100 year Starship project. Can you explain what that is?
The 100 year Starship was seed-funded by the DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the premier Defense Department agency, to really jumpstart radical innovations in technology, human systems and interstellar flight. Interstellar travel is nothing like going around in our solar system. Voyager, which has been traveling at over 35,000 miles per hour since 1977, just left our solar system. If it were headed toward our closest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri, which is 4.2 lightyears away, it would take it 50,000 to 60,000 years to get there. So, we have to do something very differently. The energy requirements to do human interstellar flight are phenomenal, to do any interstellar flight at a reasonable period of time. The idea around sustainability is really important. How do you reuse things? How do you put them together? Those are really important navigation, IT, and human behavior. How do you invest in something over a long time? And if you think about that, that really mirrors the challenges that we face in this world today on this planet.
I’d really love to ask you then, why is it so important that we make, as you say, that audacious journey to outer space? Especially when there’s still so much to do on Earth, which is kind of the subtext of that famous photo.
With 100 year Starship, we believe pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow creates a better world today. We are able to reach villages. We’re able to see things and understand things about the Earth and our environment because of space exploration. Every day, we walk around with space receivers in our hand in the form of our smartphones. They give us GPS readings and other things, the miniaturization, the issues around how do we observe the body? There are so many things that we take for granted that are very much involved in doing something as extraordinary as going to the moon and coming back. And so, without pushing further, without having a challenge of things that we don’t know how to do — sometimes we stagnate.
That intersection of space and culture — I gather you once made an appearance, Dr. Jemison, on an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” So, I’ve got to ask, were you, are you a Trekkie? Please say it is so.
So, I never call myself a Trekkie, but I am a huge “Star Trek” fan from the original series on. And I’m really proud to say that I think, you know, pop culture, people sometimes consider it, you know, irrelevant, but it changes our perspectives. And that’s the reason why something like “Star Trek,” which had a very positive outlook on our future, represented in the 1960s the full range of humanity onboard the enterprise. And that gave us another view, another look. I can tell you that I assumed I would go into space before I saw Nichelle Nichols, before I saw George Takei on the bridge of the Enterprise. I always assumed I would go into space. But here were confirmations that other people believed that, like I did, that we all belong there.
Well, Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on “Star Trek,” I mean, a woman of color in space, you were the first woman of color to actually travel into space. How significant was that for you and for young people of color, do you think?
For me, you know, I had a job to do. It was, you know, highly personal. But on the other hand, you also recognize that you have a platform and what do you do with that platform? For me, it was about even then, including other people. So, I took up with me in space, because astronauts are allowed to take up different souvenirs, I took up a picture of Judith Jamison from Alvin Ailey performing the dance “Cry for All Black Women Everywhere.” I took up a Bundu statue from the women’s and girls’ society in West Africa. I took up a certificate for Chicago Public School students to promise to do well in math and science. It was duplicated and handed out to the other students, all the students in Chicago, when I came back. That’s where I went to school, at Chicago Public Schools. I took up the Alpha Kappa Alpha banner, which is the oldest African American women’s sorority in the country. I took up a flag for the Organization of African Unity because I wanted to include people and hand these things back to folks who may not have been included. That’s what I wanted to do. So, when you ask me, “What does that mean to me?” It meant bringing my ideas and knowledge to bear on problems, questions and solutions, which meant that after I left that project, 100 year Starship had to start with inclusiveness, right? Across ethnicity, gender, geography, across disciplines — that it had to help improve life here on Earth, and beyond, and it had to be audacious. Because we need adrenaline. I think that’s one of the things that’s really important, is I recognize that humans need an adrenaline rush. We need to have a challenge. And what bigger challenge than space exploration and using it to improve life on Earth as well as beyond?
This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.