3, 2, 1, Lift Off

In a hundred years, Dr. Mae Jemison wants the capabilities for interstellar travel.

So she told a silent audience of almost 2000 people, an audience that spanned multiple cities, states, and countries. They were all attending — in the broad sense of the word that’s come to be accepted in the age of Zoom — the OSU Provost’s Lecture Series. Last Thursday, Jemison was the featured speaker. And she is, among many other things, the leader of a government-funded initiative to be capable of traveling to other solar systems in the next century.

This seems audacious to say the least, and perhaps that’s the point. As Jemison talked about diversity, science, and space, it seemed that this project — simply titled “100 Year Starship” — was perhaps most importantly a symbol of innovation. In her words, it is driven by the question, “How do you foster an environment such that something that big could be attempted?”

There are many challenges to the goal of interstellar travel, not least of which is the sheer amount of time and distance it would take. 

“The moon is three days away, Mars is four months to a year away. Interstellar is much further from that,” Jemison said. “Voyager, that just left our solar system, has been traveling at over 30,000 miles an hour since 1977 and it just left our solar system.” 

This massive distance means that many realms of science would need to advance far beyond where they are today. And that’s just one of several comparable problems.

Yet Jemison’s bright outlook made interstellar travel seem eminently possible. She said about the U.N. sustainability goals, which include such massive problems as eradicating global poverty, that “not one of those goals is something we do not have the technology and the capabilities to address right now.” She reflected sadly on the pessimism she sees in younger generations. And as she spoke, neighboring stars felt closer for a moment, in reach if only we had more people like her.

Jemison is a polymath. As she introduced herself, she listed her credentials: “astronaut, a Peace Corps medical officer, a physician, a chemical engineer, an environmental studies professor, a business owner, and an educator.” That’s nowhere near a comprehensive list. She was also the first woman of color in space, though she shrugged off that distinction, “I was surprised. I didn’t even think about the fact that I’d be the first.”

But it’s a fact that Jemison has accomplished far more already than most people ever will. And she shows no sign of stopping.

Jemison was not the first remarkable person to speak at the OSU Provost’s Lecture Series, which Provost Edward Feser described as a way to “use the intellectual strength of the institution to draw in great thinkers and leaders and then invite in the community to hear from them.” Nor will she be the last; Ibram X. Kendi and David Eagleman are slated to be the next entrants in this illustrious crew.

Feser said this year the lectures have been oriented towards racial and diversity issues. However, the inclusion of Jemison this year is a segue into the 2021-22 academic year, when there will be a focus on science. He’s also been working to increase the number of events to two or three per year rather than one. The next lecture will be given, still online, by Ibram X. Kendi on April 14 at 5 p.m. To sign up, click here.

Above all, Feser said, the goal is “to encourage students to take advantage of the broader intellectual activities at the university.” 

“We’re just trying to create opportunities for people to hear these ideas,” he continued.

Nearly 2000 people could pledge to the success of this goal on Thursday as they listened to Jemison speak. She touched on many topics, as might be expected from a person with such a variety of interests. But perhaps the most important theme was the importance of diversity in scientific thought. And in that vein, Jemison had a simple but poignant take.

“It matters who asks the questions.”

At a Glance:

  • Who: Dr. Mae Jemison
  • What: The Provost’s Lecture Series at OSU
  • When: Thursday, Feb. 4.
  • Who’s next: Ibram X. Kendi, April 14.


Provost’s Lecture Series 

Sign up for Kendi lecture

100 Year Starship

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