How many Americans are multilingual, let alone fluent in Swahili, Japanese, and Russian? Mae Jemison is an engineer and physician as well as a U.S. astronaut – an exceptional achiever by any measure.
She was born in 1956 in Decatur, Alabama; her family soon moved to Chicago, for a chance at better schools and jobs. As a child, she remembers assuming that she would one day escape terrestrial confines: “I thought by now we’d be going into space like you were going to work.”
Though her teachers were not especially supportive of her interest in science, her parents encouraged her; she was also attracted to the art of the dance and studied ballet, jazz, modern, and African dance. She graduated early and started at Stanford University at age 16 on a National Achievement Scholarship, graduating in 1977 with a degree in chemical engineering; she also fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American studies.
Being a black female engineering major was no easy thing; as she recalls, “Some professors would just pretend I wasn’t there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb, the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the question, the professor would say, ‘That’s a very astute observation.’”
In 1981, Jemison earned an MD from Cornell Medical College. During her years at Cornell, she spent some of her time providing primary medical care in Cuba, Kenya, and a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand; she also kept up her studies of dance at the Alvin Ailey School. She interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and then worked as a general practitioner. She joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and spent the next two years as the medical officer responsible for corps volunteers’ health in Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as assisting with CDC vaccine research.
After completing her hitch with the Peace Corps in 1985, Jemison felt that since fellow Stanford alumna Sally Ride had succeeded in her quest to go to space, the time was ripe to follow her longtime dream, and she applied to join NASA’s astronaut training program. The Challenger disaster of early 1986 delayed the selection process, but when she reapplied a year later, Jemison made the cut, becoming the first African-American woman ever to do so. She was one of only 15 chosen out of 2,000 who tried. When she joined the seven-astronaut crew of the space shuttle Endeavour for an eight-day mission in the fall of 1992, she became the first African-American woman in space, logging a total of over 190 hours in space. She conducted medical and other experiments while aloft.
After leaving the astronaut corps in spring of 1993, she was named to a teaching fellowship at Dartmouth, and taught there from 1995 to 2002; she is a Professor-at- Large at Cornell, and continues to advocate for science education and for getting minority students interested in science.
She has also founded two companies, the Jemison Group and BioSentient Corp to research, develop and market various advanced technologies, as well as the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, named for her mother, who was a teacher. “The Earth We Share” science camps are among the foundation’s initiatives, as well as the “100 Year Starship” project.
Jemison has received many awards as well as honorary doctorates from institutions including Princeton, RPI, and DePaul University. Various public schools and a Chicago science and space museum have also been named for her. She has appeared in several TV shows, including an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, by the invitation of LeVar Burton.
“When I’m asked about the relevance to Black people of what I do, I take that as an affront. It presupposes that Black people have never been involved in exploring the heavens, but this is not so. Ancient African empires – Mali, Songhai, Egypt – had scientists and astronomers. The fact is that space and its resources belong to all of us, not to any one group.”
— Mae Jemison