Today, Mae Jemison may be best known as the first black female astronaut to travel to space, but someday she could be known for something much more monumental. That’s because she is now at the helm of what could well be the most audacious project ever imagined: a Pentagon-funded effort meant to lead within 100 years to a spaceship that will take humans to the stars.
The 100-Year Starship, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), isn’t about building the Starship Enterprise, at least not yet. Rather, it’s about creating a nonprofit organization that can sustain efforts over the next century to enable interstellar travel. The Dorothy Jemison Foundation, headed by Mae Jemison, was selected earlier this year to lead the 100-Year Starship.
This week the foundation announced its plans for shooting for the stars. First on the agenda is a gathering of scientists and the public in Houston, Texas, to discuss ways to advance interstellar travel.
Jemison spoke exclusively with BBC Future to talk about how she plans to lead humanity on an interstellar journey.
Q: You have signed up for an ambitious project. Are you sure that in 100 years, we’ll be ready to launch a starship?
Let me put it this way: It should happen within the 100 years. But if we can figure out how to do it faster, in 20 to 30 years, I’m good, because that way I get to go. Why do I think the technology arc is sufficient? If you think about it, HG Wells wrote First Men in the Moon in 1901. Imagine how incredulous, fantastical that idea was in 1901. We didn’t have rockets, we didn’t have the materials, and we weren’t really flying. It was incredible. Less than 100 years later, we were on the moon. I know we will have the technological knowledge if we choose to pursue it.
Q: To get to the stars, you need to push technology forward. What do you think needs to be a priority?
We’re in the process of developing the research issues. The first one is energy. Even if you say, I’ll take a 1,000 years to get there, you still have to figure how to generate enough energy to power a vehicle for [that length of time]. You can’t do that necessarily with solar energy. If you say I want to do it in a human lifetime, then enormous amounts of energy also have to be created.
Q: Your first step towards the stars will happen in Houston this September. Can you tell us what to expect?
What we really want to do with the symposium is provide a place where folks who are deep into [interstellar travel], whether from the social sciences or plasma physics, can have technical discussions, as well as being able to engage the public writ large in advocacy, participation, and in understanding what’s going on.
Q: What comes after that?
The symposium is a very strong declaration of, “we’re here.” At the same time, we have been actually working on the overall program. What we see with the 100-Year Starship is that it’s really a multidimensional organization. By that I mean, it’s an organization that has at its core a nonprofit foundation. That nonprofit foundation is there to make sure we maintain its purpose. We have the capacity to spinoff for-profit organizations as well: companies, ventures, and partnerships based on things that come around opportunistically.
Part of the nonprofit organization is also a research institute called the The Way, aptly named because it’s going to have us figure out the way to get to the stars. It not something that assumes we’re going to do all the work. It’s an institute to push the technologies, and advocate for radical leaps forward in technology.