Dr. Mae Jemison may have her feet firmly planted on the ground these days, but the world’s first woman astronaut of color continues to reach for the stars. Jemison was recently successful in leading a team that has secured a $500,000 federal grant to make interstellar space travel a reality.

The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (named after Jemison’s mother) was selected in June by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to receive seed funding to form 100 Year Starship (100YSS™), an independent, non-governmental, long-term initiative that aims to ensure that the capabilities for human interstellar flight exist as soon as the next 100 years. The winning 100YSS™ proposal, titled “An Inclusive, Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth and Beyond,” was created by the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence with team members Icarus Interstellar and the Foundation for Enterprise Development.

The grant has been awarded in a climate of hypersensitivity over government spending. Jemison’s former employer, NASA, could be facing significant cuts in its 2013 budget, prompting inquiries from some quarters about the “here on earth” justifications for federal funding for space exploration.

“It’s not so much about who gets to go into space, but what happens in our world every day that we take for granted, the everyday applications that come from space exploration,” says the astronaut and physician. “People may joke about Tang,” she chuckles about the iconic fruit-flavored product whose popularity soared after astronauts drank it on board flights during the infancy of space travel in the early 1960s. She then rattles off a list of now-commonplace applications such as Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), weather satellites and miniaturization (the creation of ever-smaller scales for mechanical, optical, and electronic products and devices) as examples of practical products that had their genesis in space exploration.

“The 100YSS is one of those things that also can galvanize us,” says Jemison. “We believe that by really trying to stretch ourselves, by mounting and meeting a grand challenge, we can start to fundamentally change life here on earth, and one of our tenets is to change it for the better.”

As in the winning proposal’s title, the the 100YSS web site highlights “inclusion.”

“In the 1960s, a lot of people didn’t see themselves included in space exploration,” Jemison explains,, adding that people of color are often not regarded as being in the forefront of pushing the envelope, “even though we were there. Matthew Henson [Arctic explorer] was there. Lewis Latimer [inventor/draftsman] was there.”

Jemison is doing her part to ensure people of color are represented “there” in space, by ensuring that they properly represented here on Earth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies at institutions of higher learning.

In her work as the longtime national spokesperson for Bayer Corporation’s science education program Making Science Make Sense®, she moderated a forum in April on the state of STEM diversity at U.S. colleges.

The picture, Jemison acknowledges, is not as bright as it could be. The forum came on the heels of a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology titled “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in STEM as well as a Bayer-commissioned survey that polled STEM department chairs at the nation’s top 200 research universities about their efforts to recruit and retain female and underrepresented minority STEM undergraduate students.

Jemison says the survey found that although college professors said that women and other minorities come into STEM programs well prepared, they eventually drop out in higher numbers than their White male counterparts. At issue? The Bayer survey also found that women of color who did graduate from such programs recall being told by college professors that they should reconsider their career choice because they were unlikely to succeed in a STEM field.

“Forty percent of them said that happened to them in college,” says Jemison, a former environmental studies professor at Dartmouth College and a former A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. “And these are the ones who made it through! Can you imagine what happened to the others?”

The Bayer forum also highlighted best practices at universities around the country that are succeeding in graduating women of color in STEM majors at higher rates.

What were Jemison’s motivating factors for getting her through a rigorous program in chemical engineering and African and Afro-American Studies as an undergraduate at Stanford University?

Even though she, too, came across a few professors who tried to discourage her career choice, Jemison credits her commitment to staying the course to supportive parents, a love of science and youthful confidence. “I believed I belonged there,” she recalls. “It was a challenge, but I figured I had as much right to do this and I will complete this.”

To learn more about the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, visit www.jemisonfoundation.org.

Dorothy Givens Terry is a writer living in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. She can be reached at [email protected].