Mae Jemison | Black History Month

The space shuttle Endeavour blasted off on its second mission in September 1992. The shuttle was carrying the Spacelab module, a reusable laboratory designed to allow experiments to be carried out in space, but the most notable thing about this flight was one of the crew members: Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. Let’s take a look at how this remarkable woman became an astronaut.

Mae Carol Jemison was born on October 17, 1956, in Alabama. When she was three years old, her family moved to Chicago, which she considers her hometown. Her father was a maintenance worker and her mother a teacher of math and English to elementary students. Jemison developed an interest in science at an early age. An early inspiration was the 1960s Star Trek television series, on which a prominent character was communications officer Lt. Uhura, an African-American woman.

A keen student at high school, Jemison won a scholarship to attend Stanford University, where she attained bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies. She went on to study at Cornell University, where she achieved a doctorate in medicine in 1981. In the years after her studies, Jemison worked as a general practitioner, and as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. 

Following the historic 1983 flight of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Jemison decided to follow a childhood dream, eventually applying to NASA’s astronaut program. The explosion of the Challenger shuttle in early 1986 delayed her plans, but in 1987, she became one of just 15 candidates selected out of a total of more than 2,000 applicants. It took a year of training, but America finally had its first female African-American astronaut. “The thing that I have done throughout my life is to do the best job that I can and to be me,” she said at the time.

On September 12, 1992, the space shuttle Endeavour carried Jemison and six other astronauts into space. Jemison carried out two crucial bone cell research experiments while in space, and orbited the Earth 126 times. By the time Endeavour landed back at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on September 20, Jemison had completed 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds in space.

After leaving NASA in March 1993, Jemison went on to become a professor of environmental studies, as well as founding the organization the Jemison Group, which encourages scientific study among young people students. She continues to advocate for the importance of science education, particularly for minority students. At a 2009 conference for minority students, she said that students should “never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out. You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.”

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