In 2016, with the release of Hidden Figures, Hollywood unlocked a world of possibilities for young Black girls who rarely saw themselves reflected in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. Taraji P. Henson, with her portrayal of mathematician and longtime NASA employee Katherine Johnson, helped shine a light on the barriers women have been forced to overcome to endure in an industry that has marginalized their existence.
Now, the award-winning actress is at it again, teaming up with Amazon and Alexa as part of Artemis I, the first of several NASA missions intended to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. Henson’s participation is driven by a desire to show parents, teachers, and students how we, as a society, can push the limits of technology and AI, and inspire future scientists, astronauts, and engineers who will define this next era of space exploration.
“Space science and STEM education impacts every human on this earth. And representation matters,” Henson tells EBONY. “I didn’t dream of being an astronaut or a scientist, I was always told it was for boys. So, getting young Black men and women involved is important so we can have places like NASA control rooms, and math and science classrooms look as diverse as the world does, and so they can progress society forward.”
With the help of Amazon, students can learn more about Artemis I by saying: “Alexa take me to the moon.” The virtual assistant produced by Amazon will be integrated directly into the Orion spacecraft, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The integration will help NASA test how AI and voice technology can help astronauts during future missions to the Moon and beyond.
“Inspiring the next generation is so important,” Henson insists. “We should provide them with as much hands-on STEM experience they can have. I didn’t have that growing up but now, through advanced technology and AI capabilities, I can’t imagine kids not being inspired about Alexa and going over to say, “Alexa, take me to the moon.” The technology and information to learn and inspire is right at our fingertips. With the launch of Artemis I, it’s a big first step to eventually land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon.”
For Henson’s part, the Howard University grad expresses excitement over playing a role in exposing young people to the world of STEM. “I love feeling like I can make a difference in this world through not only art, but science, technology, and math,” Henson shares. Unlike her typical career work as an actor, she says her involvement in this mission goes beyond hitting her lines and looking her best on-screen. It gives her an opportunity to truly inspire. “As humans, we need each other and we need to inspire each other for the next generation,” Henson says. “Any way I can inspire young kids or women coming up behind me, I’ll do that. I want to be the change I want to see in this world.”
Artemis I marks the beginning of a new era in deep space exploration—one Amazon is also hopeful will help inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts. The company believes Alexa provides a new, exciting way for people to follow along with the mission. Henson hopes it also encourages individuals to see the work being done around space exploration as a collaborative experience.
Reflecting on her relationship with the late Johnson, Henson says, “I always remember Katherine saying ‘we’— she never came from a place of 'I.' So when I was getting ready to film Hidden Figures and we were talking about space, it always shocked me how many people were actually involved in sending people to the moon or launching a rocket. It’s not just one person. Katherine was always good at making sure everyone understood that. It’s amazing when you go to Kennedy Space Center you see all of the people in the control room and then realize—'we' can get to space! Sometimes when you’re far removed from it, it feels like it’s not happening. Katherine helped me realize you need every walk of life to advance humankind. It takes a village.”