Taraji P. Henson has already made moviegoing hearts soar with her powerful performance as the real-life trailblazing NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, but today, the Academy Award Nominee is taking her interests to even greater heights by partnering with Amazon as she launches the first-ever artificial intelligence (AI) Alexa experience into space with the rocket ship Artemis I.
The Artemis I successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center in the very early morning of November 16 and on November 21, Henson, 52, visited Mission Control in Houston to test out the unique technologies currently onboard the Artemis I. The Hollywood actress and humanitarian could not only communicate directly with the spacecraft, but she was able to give out specific commands from Earth.
I spoke with Henson during her interactions with NASA and Artemis I, as she revealed to me the missed opportunity she feels she was limited to as a girl growing up.
“I didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut,” Henson tells me. “I didn’t feel like I had a voice in science and math. I didn’t know how to dream about it. Science and math were only for boys.”
Now getting her chance to have a hands-on experience that is literally out of this world, I wondered exactly what types of commands Henson gave to Alexa, stationed within Artemis I.
Henson says, “I asked Alexa how much gas we had, the oxygen levels, how far from Earth we were. Then they let me have fun, so I asked ‘Alexa, turn on the party lights.’”
Artemis I is only the first of several missions planned to land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon. With Henson being both a woman and a person of color, I wondered why this partnership felt so important for her to get involved in.
“It’s important for humans to advance,” Henson continues. “The only way we’re gonna advance is to see where we’re going next. We have to gather information to see where we’re going next. I’m interested in the future. I don’t want to go to space necessarily, but I want to know what’s in store for us and the only way to do that is that. It’s important for human existence.”
Being only a few years since she prepared to play the late Johnson in Hidden Figures, I wondered if Henson brought any of the knowledge she learned or experienced from the film to her recent visit at Mission Control.
Henson says, “Well, I couldn’t remember everything, but the only thing that really sticks out from playing Katherine is the ‘go/no-go’ window for rocket launch into orbit. I remember that!”
Even as Henson has had her focus on the sky with this special partnership, her greatest focuses remain back down here on Earth, especially with her charity, The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. Named after her late father, who suffered mental health challenges without resources or support, the Foundation exists to both normalize and improve access to mental health services for Black communities, in hopes of eradicating the stigma around seeking help and support.
Henson says of her Foundation today, “We not only offer free therapy, but we specifically offer scholarships to women. Only 7% of psychologists and doctors are African-American. We have to change that!”
I concluded my conversation with Henson, with all of the work she is doing right now with both her Foundation and with Alexa in this Amazon partnership, I wondered what message she might have for the little girls & boys from all backgrounds, who are witnessing the technological advancements happening right now at NASA and within our overall society and want to one day have an active hand in that process.
“We need young brilliant minds,” Henson responds. “We need you for all of the future missions to space and beyond. We need to start talking to Alexa right now – start asking questions, get excited, because then the world will get excited. You are our future!”