Dr. Mae C. Jemison: Global Perspective

The former astronaut and first woman of color in space talks about expanding sustainable development here on Earth.

April 1, 2007

What sort of work have you been doing with sustainable development?

JEMISON: I left NASA [the National Aeronautic and Space Administration] in 1993 and started a technology consulting company, The Jemison Group. Through that company we launched a science camp and curriculum for kids in 1994, called The Earth We Share. One of the projects the children work on during the program is designing their dream house. At first they focused on things like media rooms. But last year the kids decided they wanted to design a sustainable house. It used solar energy and heat pumps and other technologies that enabled it to stand on its own off the electricity grid.

How would you assess the country’s progress on sustainable development?

JEMISON: People, more than businesses, want sustainability. Businesses have a tendency to be stuck in their ways as long as those ways prove profitable. We’re lagging behind Japan and a lot of European countries in terms of the green movement. Green doesn’t just mean the products you put into a new house. It also includes recycling, the size of buildings, how much space you occupy, and things like that. We’re going to have to reconsider our stance on those issues. What we’re going to see are future consumers—those who are teenagers and grade-schoolers today—making a difference. They’re going to demand more and better things. The world better hope they do, or we’re going to be in bad shape.

How do you see technology affecting people’s lives, particularly their homes?

JEMISON: When most people talk about technology, they mean information technology or telecommunications, but let’s go beyond that when we talk about how technology is influencing homes. We can make homes more efficient, not just in terms of energy efficiency but also in terms of the materials being used. Some materials offer more mold resistance or more waterproofing or are less toxic on the environment. When people talk about high-tech homes, there’s the IT piece, but it’s much more than that.

What did your NASA tenure and other experiences teach you about building strong, effective teams?

JEMISON: The first thing to realize is that you’re always part of a team—whether you’re planning a space mission or engaged in a solitary activity, like writing. When I finished writing Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments From My Life (Scholastic Press, 2001), I passed it off to the editor, who then had to coordinate the manuscript with a bunch of other people. The other thing is to recognize what skill sets you have on the team. You have to know not only your own strengths but also those of others, some of whom may be stronger than you in certain areas. You don’t have to do everything yourself. But if you’re leading a team, you have to be willing to step in and help. It’s not enough to say somebody else was supposed to do something.

Will practitioners ever be selling homes on another planet?

JEMISON: One of these days. It should have happened by now. When I was growing up in the 1960s, there was no way I would have believed that, by the time I went into space, we’d still be in lower orbit. I thought we’d at least be on Mars.

For more about Jemison, visit www.jemisonfoundation.org.

Chuck Paustian is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.