Mae Jemison (born October 17, 1956) is an American physician and NASA astronaut. She became the first black woman to travel in space. After her medical education and a brief general practice, Jemison served in the Peace Corps in Africa from 1985 to 1987. She joined NASA in 1987, and went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992. She resigned from NASA in 1993 to form a company researching the application of technology to daily life. In addition to her achievements in science she is an accomplished actor, dancer and public speaker.
Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, the youngest child of Charlie Jemison and Dorothy Green. Her father was a maintenance supervisor for a charity organization, and her mother worked most of her career as an elementary school teacher of English and math at the Beethoven School in Chicago. The family moved to Chicago, Illinois, when Jemison was three years old, to take advantage of better educational opportunities there. Jemison says that as a young girl growing up in Chicago she always assumed she would get into space. “I thought, by now, we’d be going into space like you were going to work.” She said it was easier to apply to be a shuttle astronaut, “rather than waiting around in a cornfield, waiting for ET to pick me up or something.”
Jemison wouldn’t let anyone dissuade her from pursuing a career in science. “In kindergarten, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told her a scientist,” Jemison says. “She said, ‘Don’t you mean a nurse?’ Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a nurse, but that’s not what I wanted to be.”
Jemison loved science growing up but she also loved the arts. Jemison began dancing at the age of nine. ”I love dancing! I took all kinds of dance — African dancing, ballet, jazz, modern — even Japanese dancing. ”For me, I love the sciences and I also love the arts,” says Jemison. ”I saw the theatre as an outlet for this passion and so I decided to pursue this dream.” Later during her senior year in college, she was trying to decide whether to go to New York to medical school or become a professional dancer. Her mother told her, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
Jemison graduated from Chicago’s Morgan Park High School in 1973 and entered Stanford University at age 16. ”I was naive and stubborn enough that it didn’t faze me,” Jemison said. “It’s not until recently that I realized that 16 was particularly young or that there were even any issues associated with my parents having enough confidence in me to [allow me to] go that far away from home.” Jemison graduated from Stanford in 1977, receiving a B.S. in chemical engineering and fulfilling the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies. Jemison said that majoring in engineering as a black woman was difficult because race was always an issue in the United States. ”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 same question, the professor would say, “That’s a very astute observation.’” In an interview with the Des Moines Register in 2008 Jemison said that it was difficult to go to Stanford at 16, but thinks her youthful arrogance may have helped her. ”I did have to say, ‘I’m going to do this and I don’t give a damn’.” She points out the unfairness of the necessity for women and minorities to have that attitude in some fields.
Jemison obtained her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 from Cornell Medical College. She interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and later worked as a general practitioner. During medical school Jemison traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand, to provide primary medical care to people living there. During her years at Cornell Medical College, Jemison took lessons in modern dance at the Alvin Ailey school. Jemison later built a dance studio in her home and has choreographed and produced several shows of modern jazz and African dance.
After completing her medical training, Jemison joined the staff of the Peace Corps and served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer from 1983 to 1985 responsible for the health of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Jemison’s work in the Peace Corps included supervising the pharmacy, laboratory, medical staff as well as providing medical care, writing self-care manuals, and developing and implementing guidelines for health and safety issues. Jemison also worked with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) helping with research for various vaccines.
Once while serving as a doctor for the Peace Corps, a volunteer got sick and another doctor was diagnosed with malaria. The volunteer got progressively worse and Jemison was sure it was meningitis with life-threatening complications that could not be treated in Sierra Leone. Jemison called for an Air Force hospital plane based in Germany for a military medical evacuation at a cost of $80,000. The embassy questioned whether Jemison had the authority to give such an order but she told them she didn’t need anyone’s permission for a medical decision. By the time the plane reached Germany with Jemison and the volunteer on board, she had been up with the patient for 56 hours. The patient survived.
After the flight of Sally Ride in 1983, Jemison felt the astronaut program had opened up, so she applied. Jemison’s inspiration for joining NASA was African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Jemison was turned down on her first application to NASA, but in 1987 Jemison was also accepted on her second application. ”I got a call saying ‘Are you still interested?’ and I said ‘Yeah’,” says Jemison.
Her work with NASA before her shuttle launch included launch support activities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and verification of Shuttle computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). ”I did things like help to support the launch of vehicles at Kennedy Space Center,” said Jemison. ”I was in the first class of astronauts selected after the Challenger accident back in 1986, … I actually worked the launch of the first flight after the Challenger accident.
Jemison flew her first space mission from September 12 to 20, 1992 as a Mission Specialist on STS-47. “The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown,” said Jemison. “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. It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl I had always assumed I would go into space,” Jemison added.
Jemison resigned from NASA in March 1993. ”I left NASA because I’m very interested in how social sciences interact with technologies,” says Jemison. ”People always think of technology as something having silicon in it. But a pencil is technology. Any language is technology. Technology is a tool we use to accomplish a particular task and when one talks about appropriate technology in developing countries, appropriate may mean anything from fire to solar electricity.” Although Jemison’s departure from NASA was amicable, NASA was not thrilled to see her leave. ”NASA had spent a lot of money training her; she also filled a niche, obviously, being a woman of color,” said Homer Hickam, a training manager for NASA’s space station efforts who later wrote the book Rocket Boys which was adapted into the film October Sky. In an interview with the Des Moines Register on October 16, 2008 Jemison said that she was not driven to be the “first black woman to go into space.” “I wouldn’t have cared less if 2,000 people had gone up before me … I would still have had my hand up, ‘I want to do this.’”
In 1993 Jemison founded her own company, the Jemison Group that researches, markets, and develops science and technology for daily life. In 1993, Jemison also appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. LeVar Burton found out, from a friend that Jemison was a big Star Trek fan and asked her if she’d be interested in being on the show, and she said, “Yeah!!” The result was an appearance as Lieutenant Palmer in the episode “Second Chances”. Jemison has the distinction of being the first real astronaut ever to appear on Star Trek.
Jemison is currently a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and was a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002. Jemison continues to advocate strongly in favor of science education and getting minority students interested in science. Jemison is an active public speaker who appears before private and public groups promoting science and technology as well as providing an inspirational and educational message for young people. “Having been an astronaut gives me a platform,” says Jemison,”but I’d blow it if I just talked about the Shuttle. “Jemison uses her platform to speak out on the gap in the quality of health-care between the United States and the Third World and the impact African-Americans have had on U.S. science and technology.