This month marks a special celebration of all the greatness that the African-American community has offered the country and the world. We have been showing off some icons over the past few weeks and today we continue our celebration of greatness with a look at Mae Jemison. Not only the first African-American woman to travel in space, Mae Jemison is an American engineer, physician and NASA astronaut that has made quite an impact in the fields of medical, technology and social science. She also appeared on television a few times, including as an actress in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and is also a dancer that holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities.
Born in Decatur, Alabama in 1956 her family moved to Chicago when Jemison was just three years old, in order to take advantage of the better educational and employment opportunities. She was inspired in the world of science by her parents, as well as influencing her her medical career as well. She has also stated that she was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and stated: “Too often people paint him like Santa — smiley and inoffensive,” adding “But when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of attitude, audacity, and bravery.” She began dancing at age 11 before she graduated from Chicago’s Morgan Park High School in 1973 and went on to enter Stanford University at the age of 16. Jemison obtained her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 at Cornell Medical College and later built a dance studio in her home and has choreographed and produced shows of modern jazz and African dance.
Upon completing medical training she then joined the Peace Corps and served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer from 1983 to 1985. Here she was responsible for the health of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Liberia and Sierra Leone supervising the pharmacy, laboratory, medical staff in the process. Dreaming of bigger things she then looked to space to expand her horizons. After Sally Ride took flight as the first female astronaut, Jemison applied to the program inspired by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, who depicted Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek.
After the Space Shuttle program was delayed due to the Challenger disaster, she reapplied in 1987 and received the news of her acceptance. She went to work with NASA and provided launch support actions at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and confirmation of Shuttle computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. She went on to fly her only space mission from September 12 to 20, 1992 doing so as a Mission Specialist on STS-47. THe mission was a collaboration between the U.S. and Japan and was also the 50th shuttle mission. She spent her time conducting experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness on herself as well as six other crew members. She spoke about her experience stating: “The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown,” adding “I was working on the middeck where there aren’t many windows, and as we passed over Chicago, the commander called me up to the flight deck.” She went on to say that “It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl, I had always assumed I would go into space.” She also took a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater along with her as a salute to creativity.
In 1993 she resigned from NASA stating that she left due to her interests in how social sciences interact with technology. Mae Jemison is now a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and was a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002. In 1993 she founded her own company, the Jemison Group which researches, markets, and develops science and technology for daily life. She has also founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and named the foundation in honor of her mother and has continued to progress forward. Then in 2012, Jemison made the winning bid for the DARPA 100 Year Starship project through the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. This awarded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence a $500,000 grant for further work. She is the current principal of the 100 Year Starship and continues her important work, even making public appearances and more. Celebrate the greatness that is Mae Jemison.