Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen

2023 Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, Exploration, and Scientific Innovation

Photo of Dr. Wells-Jensen standing in front of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building, holding a white cane and wearing an AstroAccess flight jacket.

[photo of Dr. Wells-Jensen standing in front of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building, holding a white cane and wearing an AstroAccess flight jacket.]

Linguistics in space  |  Disability in space  |  Teaching and research  |  Contact

Linguistics in outer space

Q: What was 13-year-old Sheri's wildest dream?
A: Anything Star Trek!

Some years later: I was elated to serve as a consultant for Star Trek: Discovery Season 4. No spoilers intended, but it did involve a linguist's touch. Live Long and Prosper, 13-year-old me! :)

Disability in outer space

I am proud to be a project lead and ambassador for Mission: AstroAccess, an ongoing project utilizing zero-G parabolic flights to investigate factors that impact the viability of disabled people serving as crew on suborbital and orbital flights with the goal of opening space to all.

On October 17, 2021, twelve disabled people (4 blind, 2 Deaf, and 6 with mobility disabilities) flew on a zero-G parabolic flight on G Force One, the modified 727 utilized by Zero G Corporation. They carried out demonstrations and gathered data on how disabled people can work effectively in microgravity. Ambassadors and ground staff are currently preparing publications analyzing results.

... Also, it was amazing! Also-also, nobody got sick! Also-also-also, I got to talk about it on Radiolab!

Who goes to space?

We'll go to space; we have always wanted to go, and as long as we have the means to fight off gravity to get there, we'll go. And we'll stay as long as we can. And we'll build our homes and factories and science labs on the moon and on Mars and beyond.

And yet, space is dangerous; you might even say that space is always trying to kill you. It is inevitable that human colonies in orbit and beyond will be populated by hopeful, capable, tenacious people whose various disabilities tell the story of how space did not quite kill them.

This provides us with a very interesting sociological question. In space, unlike on Earth, there is no easy way to swap out disabled employees for fresh ones, and the limited resources and tight living conditions inevitable in off-world colonies will mean that we cannot afford to feed, protect, and provide oxygen for folk who are not contributing. Everybody there must be working.

So if you think that space colonies will be full of gorgeous, firm-jawed, steely-eyed astronauts who are strong and able-bodied, you might want to recalibrate.

Humanity's future in space will be populated by gorgeous, firm-jawed, metaphorically steely-eyed astronauts who have missing limbs, who are deaf or blind, or who have skeletons that are weakened by long exposure to microgravity. But they will still be hopeful, capable and tenacious, and they will still have jobs to do.

Teaching and research interests

(Alphabetically, for lack of a better order): Applied phonology and syntax, astrobiology, braille, disability studies, language creation, language preservation, psycholinguistics, speech production (especially slips of the tongue), and xenolinguistics. I am currently on the boards of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International, SciAccess, and SSoCIA (Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology).