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Telling Stories of the Future With the 100 Year Starship, an Interview With Dr. Mae Jemison

100 YSS Starship Panel at SXSW

At SXSW, astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, Dr. Jill Tarter of SETI and LeVar Burton imagined the next 100 years.

Has humanity stopped looking to the future with hope?

Sometimes it feels like we’re so embroiled in the struggle over whether we’ll despoil our environment or dismantle all our safety nets in the next few years that we can’t look toward what life might look like in decades, much less a century and imagine things better than they are right now. Yet looking toward our far future helps us think about things now in a new light. One reason is that trying to solve very big problems forces us to fix a lot of smaller ones along the way.

At SXSW Interactive, the most mind-bending panel I attended was hosted by the 100 Year Starship foundation. This nonprofit began as a conference in 2011 sponsored by NASA and DARPA, with the idea of launching a foundation devoted to a very big idea: what capabilities would humanity need to send a one-way mission to another planet within the next hundred years?

Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison submitted the winning proposal, which envisioned a project devoted not just to the physical technology of the journey but also the social and cultural needs. Last year, the 100YSS held its first independent symposium in Houston, with presentations on everything from using hydrogels to fight bone mass loss to the heady question of what kind of clothes we’d wear on a voyage that takes decades, or whether we’d wear clothing at all!

It’s become cliche to point out that we’re on a collective space voyage with a crew of six billion people, in a self-contained, irreplaceable craft. Our recent, space-going past proved that technologies developed for travel to outer space and the moon benefit humans on earth in near-countless ways. If we — not just NASA or the United States, but humanity as a whole — tackled the challenge of interstellar travel what might we learn about efficiently and ethically feeding, clothing, powering and preserving this world?

During the SXSW panel, Dr. Jemison, along with Dr. Jill Tarter, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and LeVar Burton spoke philosophically about the challenges facing humanity and how a grand project could bring our world together.

Dr. Tarter told us that, “”We’re on the verge of being able to tell you where to look in the sky to find Earth 2.0.” So what do we do when we find it?

“There is an inextricable link between that which we imagine and that which we create,” Levar Burton said. So could imagining new stories — stories about interstellar travel — create a healthier, more peaceful Earth at the same time we prepare to leave?

Jemison quoted an African proverb: “No one shows a child the sky.” Space is a part of all humanity, so will we answer its call?

Last week I interviewed Dr. Jemison about the project. Her staff at 100YSS cautioned me that with her busy schedule, she’d only have five or ten minutes. Instead, we ended up talking for almost half an hour. It seemed impossible — and unfair to FDL’s readers — to boil that down into just a few sound bites, so instead I transcribed our entire conversation below. [cont’d.] I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed having it!

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Kit OConnell

Kit OConnell

Kit O’Connell is a gonzo journalist and radical troublemaker from Austin, Texas. He is the Associate Editor and Community Manager of Shadowproof. Kit's investigative journalism has appeared in Truthout, MintPress News and