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Houstonite Astronaut Mae Jemison: Texas Crisis 'Did Not Have To Be This Bad'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to end the program today where we began - in Texas. As we've been reporting, residents there are still struggling to cope with the effects of that powerful winter storm that hit the state several days ago. Officials are warning millions of people to boil their water for safety after heavy damage from burst water pipes contaminated the supply. And even though power has been restored to most people who lost it at the height of the storm, many still don't have electricity, including thousands of people in the city of Houston.

We wanted to check in with one Houston resident who's been coping like many - somebody whose name you probably know - Dr. Mae Jemison, the physician and engineer who became NASA's first African American woman astronaut and the first woman of color in space. And Dr. Mae Jemison is with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. How are you doing?

MAE JEMISON: I'm doing fine - much better than earlier in the week.

M MARTIN: What happened earlier in the week? You lost water and power.

JEMISON: Well, we lost power and didn't have power for quite a while and then maybe had it for three hours, and it went back off. And the temperatures were much lower than they ever are in Houston. So you're trying to actually deal with the lower temperatures, seeing your breath in the house, you're walking around. But it's getting better.

M MARTIN: Yeah. And how about the water situation? Are you having to boil your water right now?

JEMISON: We have to boil our water. So I'm using bottled water for drinking, boiling water to wash dishes and all of those kinds of things. But, you know, here's the thing. Here's where we are right now. We're in a place where it did not have to be this bad because there was enough information for years about robustness of systems, knowing that as the climate changed, it wasn't just that it's going to get warmer all the time, but there would be these different effects of where the Gulf Stream goes - that, you know, the temperatures may be much more erratic.

And the whole idea of the robustness of an electrical system, and Houston being a city that is prone to hurricanes and other things - and, in fact, in post-Ike situations - Hurricane Ike - we knew that we had to have better housing codes and building codes. And so it really is up to government to do a better job with robustness of systems in assuring that we do what we can to make systems as resilient and as robust as possible.

M MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that because, as I said, you are a physician, but you're also an engineer. You've been in space. I mean, you've been engaged with some of the - sort of the highest and most sophisticated technology, technological systems that the world has to offer. In addition to that, you've been a longtime sort of advocate for scientific literacy. I mean, this has been one of your, you know, causes for years.

And I just wonder, you know, what do you make of this? I mean, do you just - I mean, in addition to just, like, coping with the discomfort of being, like, cold and not having, you know, water and stuff like this, but I just wondered, like, what do you make of this - just the fact that something like this happened in the United States? What do you make of it?

JEMISON: I think when we look around from some of the reactions that we've had to vaccines and the pandemic, how do we protect ourselves, there is a major issue around science literacy. But it's not just around, do we know we can get infected by germs? It's but understanding how the scientific process works in terms of development and even the communication from the side of scientists. Because when we talk about risk, benefits and all of those kinds of things, there's a very certain language that scientists use and physicians use with each other, but it doesn't necessarily translate to the public.

So when you say, well, maybe the vaccine is not as effective against new variants, but it keeps you from going to a hospital and dying, that's the important part, right? And so it's really how we translate this language and what people start to understand. The - when you have politicians, our leaders, policymakers, they have to understand that, yes, something may happen maybe every 20 years or maybe every hundred years. But when that happens, the toll could be catastrophic. And so that's what you have to prepare for.

M MARTIN: I know you have a new edition of your autobiography coming out soon. It's the young adult version. It's called "Find Where The Wind Goes." For those who don't know it, the new edition is for young adults. It's written from the perspective of your 16-year-old self.

The first question I have is, like, how strange is it? Here you are trying to prepare for a book rollout and a book tour without, you know, heat, wi-fi - like, the whole thing. So that's - the first thing is - I mean, I guess it's already been sort of strange because of the pandemic, but how have you been managing all of that?

JEMISON: Well, I think, you know, "Find Where The Wind Goes" is really about and it was written originally always for my 16-year-old self and telling her about some of the adventures she would have and clues along the way as to how she got through. And those clues include that you can't always predict what's going to happen. And you have to be resilient and be able to work with what you have and be prepared for different opportunities and different challenges.

M MARTIN: So what's keeping you hopeful right now? It's kind of - you - obviously, you still have your sense of humor, but - which is kind of hard to do when you're freezing and cold - freezing cold and, like, have to - don't have good, clean water. But what's keeping you hopeful?

JEMISON: The world is an incredible place. Humans have a remarkable amount of resilience. What keeps me hopeful is when I see people responding positively to help others, even though we're in a time where in this country just - we can't believe the kind of divisiveness in some of the things that people are uncomfortable about. But when you look around, and you see people helping each other, you know that we have the possibility to do better.

M MARTIN: That was Dr. Mae Jemison, Houston resident, physician, former astronaut. A new edition of her autobiography, "Find Where the Wind Blows," is coming out soon.

Dr. Jemison, stay warm. I hope things get better in Houston soon.

JEMISON: It will. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE'S "MAGIC FLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.