Mae Carol Jemison: First African American Woman Space Traveler. The Sky is Only the Beginning, Not the Limit
Talk about one driven woman who did it all! Mae Carol Jemison was the first African American woman to travel amongst the stars, but there is so much more to this fascinating woman than meets the eye.
You may recognize her as Lt. Palmer on the series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), but this dynamically-intelligent hero is so much more than just an actress.
How She Got Her Start
Born in 1956 in Decatur, Alabama, Jemison spent her early years in Chicago, Illinois. When she was just a young girl, a splinter that became infected led to a fascination with purulent discharge (pus). She told her kindergarten teacher she wanted to be a scientist. Jemison spent countless hours in her school library reading all about subjects related to science, particularly astronomy. Space travel always fascinated her. “My mother always told me to go find out the information myself,” she told Stanford University paper, Stanford Today in 1996. “She was very directive, in the sense of ‘it’s your responsibility,’ sort of like those people who tell you to go look up a word in the dictionary when you don’t know how to spell it.”
She made short work of her task, graduating from Morgan Park High School in Chicago and moving on to Stanford University when she was just 16. After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and Afro-American Studies. Continuing a trend that began in high school, Jemison kept herself involved in outside activities, including dance and theater productions. She also served as the head of the Black Student Union.
She had some adversity to deal with during those years, being a black woman, but she powered through not caring what anyone else thought of her. She believes that her youthful arrogance may have helped because when she set her mind to it, she would finish what she started without caring about what others thought of her.
Jemison completed her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981, attending Cornell Medical College, now known as Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Her years there were both industrious and fulfilling. She spent time traveling to Kenya, Thailand, and Cuba to provide medical care to people in those countries. She interned at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
She knew the importance of balancing work and studies with play and relaxation. Jemison took modern dance classes at the famed Alvin Ailey School and participated in theater productions, aware that the exercise and mental stimulation can be a great way to de-stress.
Work as a Medical Doctor
After completing her medical training, Jemison became a Medical Officer in the Peace Corp, taking care of the health of other Peace Corps volunteers who were assigned to serve in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
While there, a patient had been diagnosed with malaria, but Jemison was positive it was meningitis, instead, and that it could not successfully be treated where they were in Sierra Leone. She insisted on a medical evacuation (to the tune of $80,000). When questioned by the embassy, she told them she didn’t need anyone else’s permission to make this decision. The patient was properly treated and survived.
She returned to the US to join CIGNA Health Plans of California in October 1985 and worked as a General Practitioner while attending graduate engineering classes.
It was then that she was selected to NASA’s astronaut program.
Where Her Astronaut Inspiration Came From
After Sally Ride’s historic space flight in 1983, Jemison applied for the space program, but that’s not where the idea started. “I loved space, stars, and dinosaurs,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to explore.” But she couldn’t find any real-world examples of American women in space. So, believe it or not, her inspiration to become an astronaut came from watching African-American actress Nichelle Nichols play Lieutenant Uhura in the Star Trek series. Uhura was a black female translator and communications officer.
When she got the call from NASA in 1987 asking if she were still interested, she jumped on it, becoming the first African American woman ever admitted into the astronaut training program, becoming one of 15 candidates chosen from a field of about 2,000. She became an astronaut after more than a year of training with the title of science-mission specialist, making her responsible for conducting crew-related scientific experiments on the space shuttle.
Together with six other astronauts, Jemison flew into space on September 12, 1992 aboard the Endeavour on mission STS-47. She spent eight days in space conducting weightlessness and motion sickness experiments on the crew and herself.
Proud of this accomplishment, she noted that society should recognize how much both women and members of other minority groups can contribute if given the opportunity. She remembers the time of the Apollo program. “Everybody was thrilled about space,” she reminisces, “but I remember being irritated that there were no women astronauts. People tried to explain that to me, and I did not buy it.” Her drive and her persistence had paid off.
Jemison brought along some memorabilia as a tribute to the African American community on her flight. “People don’t see women - particularly black women - in science and technology fields. My participation in the space shuttle mission helps to say that all peoples of the world have astronomers, physicists, and explorers.” Her collection included an Alvin Ailey dance poster, a West African statuette, proclamations from the DuSable Museum of African-American History, and a Michael Jordan jersey.
A Short Stay With NASA
Jemison resigned from NASA less than a year after her mission. She really took a deep-down look at her life and decided that she had “many other challenges to face and contributions to make to the world.” She was interested in the interaction between social sciences and technology.
She established her own company called the Jemison Group, which researches, develops, and markets science and technological improvements which can be used for daily life.
She established The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (DJF). DJF is a non-profit foundation that places special emphasis on building critical thinking skills, experiential teaching methods, science literacy, integrated approaches to learning and individual responsibility in achieving excellence. It was named after her mother. She also worked to create The Earth We Share (TEWS), which is an international space camp for youth to work on solving global problems. She also founded the BioSentient Corp which aims to develop mobile monitoring for the involuntary nervous system.
If more women could follow her example, imagine the possibilities. Of her shuttle mission, she admits, “You are aware that you are sitting on a controlled explosion. But you also realize that you’ve taken all the precautions. You trust the people you have been working with and you know they have worked to try to keep things safe. After that, you have to leave it alone. If you keep worrying about that, then you’re not going to be able to do your job.”