Mae Jemison always knew she would go to space

Mae Jemison is nothing short of a scientific visionary. In the 1990s, when she was working as a medical doctor, she decided to try out for the Space Shuttle program. A few years later, she was an astronaut, doing medical experiments on the Space Shuttle and making history. After leaving NASA, she worked on developing new medical technologies, while also running her own philanthropic organization, the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which offers science camps for kids in developing countries, among other activities. Now she's gotten seed money from the US government to run The 100 Year Starship, a program devoted to making interstellar flight a reality in the next century.

Jemison is also the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek. She had a cameo on a Star Trek: TNG episode called "Second Chances." She's a huge fan of science fiction, and often talks about how Star Trek inspired her when she was young.

io9 had a chance to sit down with Jemison at SETICon last month, where she was a featured guest, and asked her a few questions about her inspirations.

io9: What first got you interested in science?

Mae Jemison: I always knew I would go to space, and I always assumed I would be a scientist. I wanted to be a professional dancer for a period of time, and I did a lot of dancing and choreography and got paid for it. I also wanted to be a fashion designer, and I wanted to do a lot of other things. But I always assumed that I'd be involved in science. I remember as a little girl I was pissed that there were no women astronauts. People tried to tell me why, and I said, "That's baloney."

io9: How does science fiction help us imagine the future?

Mae Jemison: I think science fiction helps us think about possibilities, to speculate — it helps us look at our society from a different perspective. It lets us look at our mores, using science as the backdrop, as the gamechanger. With Star Trek, for example, obviously these stories influence and inform us, but sometimes you say, "Come hell or high water, that's not going to happen." Influence doesn't mean you're taking it on board necessarily.

One interesting work of science fiction is Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. That's brings a kind of cultural anthropology perspective to our encounters [with aliens]. Clearly I'm one of those kids who grew up reading Asimov and Clarke. I also read Octavia Butler and Anne McCaffrey. Smetimes space was a backdrop that allowed me to think about what the world might be like. Then there's Marion Zimmer Bradley. You wouldn't think a fantasy novel like The Mists of Avalon would fit here, but she talks about [the witch] Morgana from a different perspective, and shows you that if you shift around everything looks very different.

What Was It is a series of short interviews co-hosted on io9 and Gizmodo that asks the luminaries of science and science fiction what inspired them to delve so deeply into the only kind of magic we have in the real world — science and technology. What was it that first opened their eyes? Find out more at What Was It?