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Mae Jemison: The First African-American Woman in Space Had an Illustrious Career from Medicine to Cinema

BY Dipanjana Mukherjee July 8, 2019
Mae Jemison

Astronaut Mae Jemison in Spacelab-J. (NASA on The Commons / Flickr)

Born in the state of Alabama in the year 1956, Mae Jemison made history as the first African-American woman to become an astronaut. After her family moved to Chicago when Mae was merely a 3-year-old child, she started developing a keen interest in science. She was greatly influenced by her uncle who first ignited her passion in the field.  Mae’s main area of fascination was the vast mystery presented by Space. Her parents never stopped her from being curious, and in fact, supported her. Soon after, she started showing enthusiasm for subjects such as anthropology, astronomy and archaeology, thus widening her interests.

The sky is not the limit

Jemison was only 16 when she enrolled herself at Stanford University on scholarship. She was a determined girl, and her innate genius was evident when she graduated (from) Stanford University with degrees in both chemical engineering and Afro-American Studies. Not being the end of her educational accomplishments, she also enrolled herself at the Cornell Medical College. She graduated with a doctorate in medicine in the year 1981. Apart from her fluency in English, she soon became fluent in 3 other languages, namely, Russian, Japanese and Swahili.

Jemison practised medicine across three continents- North America (Los Angeles, California), Asia (Cambodia) and Africa. She volunteered at a Refugee camp in Cambodia. She also worked with the Peace Corps as a medical officer in West African countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia for over two years.

Working towards the goal

After spending time with the Peace Corps, Mae applied at NASA’s astronaut program upon her return to the United States, to pursue her dreams. She looked up to Sally Ride, who became the first American woman astronaut in space in 1983, as her idol. As fate would have it, the program she applied to was put on hold as a consequence of the explosion of the Challenger in 1986. Jemison was selected for the NASA Astronaut Group 12 after it was re-opened in 1987. She became one of the fifteen candidates that were selected out of a number of roughly two thousand or more applicants. With determination, Jemison completed the program after a year as a mission specialist in 1988.

A dream come true

History was made on September 12th, 1992, when Jemison went aboard the space shuttle Endeavour along with 6 other astronauts. The mission STS-47 carried the astronauts on 126 orbits around the Earth. With the lift-off of this historical mission, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman astronaut to enter space and orbit the Earth. During her time in space, she also did research and experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness. On September 20th, Endeavour landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Jemison logged her voyage in space for 190 hours, 30 minutes and 23 seconds.

Mae C. Jemison along with her crew members of STS-47.

Mae C. Jemison along with her crew members of STS-47. (NASA)

After space

Mae Jemison resigned from NASA in March 1993, in favour of pursuing her other dreams involving social sciences and technology. She first became a professor teaching environmental studies at Dartmouth College and then a professor at Cornell University. She became the founder of The Jemison Group Inc, her very own consulting firm. The company focuses on young students to develop and find their love for science and advancing technologies in schools worldwide. Jemison’s company also encourages young people to be curious and ask questions. Jemison also founded a science camp called The Earth We Share’ for young high school students. She worked at the World Sickle Cell Foundation from 1990 to 1992 as a member of the Board of Directors. Till date, Jemison supports young people interested in science and education. Jemison’s love and fascination for science, in fact, knowledge in general, is pretty overwhelming. Mae Jemison is now serving as the Principal of the 100 Year Starship Organization.

Jack of all trades, master of many

Besides science and academics, Jemison was a passionate dancer and was in love with the form since the age of 11. She mastered various kinds of dance styles, in particular, African dancing, jazz, modern and ballet. Jemison even tried her luck and auditioned for the lead role of Maria in West Side Story. Unfortunately, she did not get the lead but did make it as a background dancer. She even choreographed a host of dance routines. In 2001, she published her own book called ‘Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from My life’. The book is mainly targeted at children and tells of her life experiences, starting from her childhood to her tryst in space. It also talks about the discrimination she faced as a student, and how she emerged victorious.

Jemison had always been a huge fan of the American actress Nichelle Nichols. Nichols’ role of Lieutenant Uhura, a communications officer in the Star Trek television series, inspired Mae to dream of space. Inspired, Jemison herself made a cameo in an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ called ‘Second Chances’. Nichelle Nichols even paid a visit to Jemison during the filming of the episode. Jemison also went down in history as the first real female astronaut to appear in a television series.

Mae Jemison – A much-lauded individual

Being the all-rounder she is, Jemison received several awards for various accomplishments. She was awarded the ‘Essence’ Science and Technology Award in 1988. In 1990, she was named the Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year. She was also awarded Ebony Magazine’s ‘Black Achievement Award’ in 1992. Apart from these, in 1991, Jemison was included in McCall’s ‘10 Outstanding Women for the 90’s’. In 1993, she was welcomed into the fold of the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Dartmouth College, where Jemison was a professor, awarded her the ‘Montgomery Fellowship’.

Mae Jemison believes that space and its resources belong to everyone and not just any particular group. Her admiration for science and her determination to explore an arena unfamiliar to her parents and family was noteworthy. She didn’t give up on her dreams despite the discrimination she faced in academia, and the racial remarks passed by her professors. She was too fixated on her goals and passion to allow circumstances to bring her down. Even today she continues to inspire us to think big, evolve and work harder. Her life is also an inspiration for parents to support their child’s interests, and draw out the best in them. Jemison’s parents gave her leave to dissent, to question, to explore, and develop into her own person. Her life experiences teach us to listen to our inner voice and embark on a journey towards self-discovery and success. 

“Pay attention to the world around you and then find the places where you think you’re skilled. Follow your bliss–and bliss doesn’t mean it’s easy!”

—Mae Jemison

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Jack Parsons: The Sex Occultist Who Was Key in Sending America to Space“.

Fact Analysis:
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