When you've been up in space, being down to earth might seem a challenge. Not for Mae Jemison. The former NASA astronaut and
first African-American woman to orbit our blue planet is helping put space technology on a more terrestrial footing and adapt it for use in developing countries.
Dr. Jemison's goal, she says, is to promote sustainable technology - improve the quality of human life now, without jeopardizing future generations. And the developing world, she says, "is where we have an opportunity."
And if space technology isn't the first thing that comes to mind for developing countries, she has a different view.
"Very often people ... think of the technologies more suitable for developing countries as being the least common denominator technology ... the wheelbarrow and things like that," Jemison said recently in a talk at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. "But in reality, many times what's going to make the difference are those technologies that are really pushing the edge."
One example is satellite mapping. An accurate survey of a country's topography is key to locating its resources and building roads. If you do a map on the ground, she said, "it takes forever." "From space, you can take one picture and get incredible amounts of data, even though one picture may cost $5,000."
But often there's a wrinkle in adapting modern technology to local cultures, she said. It also raises the question, "Who will repair it?"
Enter the Jemison Group for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries. Set up after she left NASA in 1992, the group seeks out technologies and companies that can adapt them for use in the developing world.
A classic example of a technological disconnect was the solar-powered cooker, Jemison said. Solar cookers are like crockpots; they stew food over long periods. For people accustomed to cooking over an open flame, it requires a major shift in how they cook and socialize. What was needed, she said, was "to substitute flame for flame," to develop plant-generating fuels to replace fossil fuels.
Mae Jemison's talk will be aired on public radio stations April 16. For more information, visit www.radcliffe. edu/feminisms.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor