Black History Month, Week 4: Mae Jemison

February 28, 2022 / Mb Staffing

Mae Jemison always has had a deep fascination with the exploration of the stars and space. She was influenced by telecasts of the Gemini and Apollo spaceflights. Her favorite African American actress Nichelle Nicholas who played Lieutenant Uhura on the Star Trek series inspired her to explore space. Space is beyond immeasurable possibilities, and Jemison believed in reaching for something much greater than the stars: becoming the first African American woman to travel in space.

Born on October 17, 1956, Mae Carol Jemison was the youngest of three children and her father was a maintenance supervisor while her mother was an elementary school teacher. She moved to Chicago, Illinois at a very young age and continued her love for dance, in addition to her studies of science. At the time, there weren’t many leading women that worked on spacecrafts and spaceflights; she was often inspired by the possibility of becoming the first African American woman to space travel. In 1973, she graduated from Morgan Park High School at the age of 16 and attended Stanford University to study chemical engineering.

Mae Jemison was one of the very few African American’s that attended Stanford and faced racial discrimination during her time there. In her early college career, Jemison served as president of the Black Student Union and choreographed a performing arts production called Out of the Shadows about the African American experience, according to Womenhistory.org. She ended Stanford University in 1977 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering and a B.A. in African and African American studies.

She took a short gap after graduating and attended Cornell Medical School. While her time at Med School, she traveled to Cuba and continued her studies while leading for the American Medical Student Association. She also worked at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and continued her research. In 1981, Jemison graduated with a doctorate from Cornell and went on to practice general medicine as a medical officer for the Peace Corps for two years in African.

She was fluent in Russian, Japanese and Swahili after her time spent with the Peace Corp, and then opened a private practice as a doctor with her experience. However, Sally Ride, the first woman to go to space, inspired her to apply for the astronaut program at NASA. In 1987, Jemison was one of the 2,000 applicants that was accepted to the program. After being selected, she trained with the NASA Astronaut Group 12 and worked on projects at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. She received her first mission on September 28. 1989 and continued training with the STS-47 crew as a Mission Specialist. On September 12, 1992, Jemison made history and became the first African American women along with her team of six astronauts to travel in space on the space shuttle Endeavor.

From an article reported by the New York Times, they captured this moment with a quote from Jemison on September 13, 1992, stating, “I’m extremely excited to be on the flight because it’s something that I wanted to do since I was a small child.”

Jemison retired from NASA in 1993 after serving as an astronaut for six years in total. She received honorary awards such as the Gamma Sigma Gamma Women of the Year (1989), Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Winston Salem College (1991), and the DuSable Museum Award (1992). She is currently leading the 100 year Starship project through the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and working to make space exploration to another star possible with the next 100 years.

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