Mae Jemison, a doctor, was the first African American woman to be selected for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) astronaut training program and was the first African American woman to travel in space.
Early life and education
Mae Carol Jemison was born on October 17, 1956, in Decatur, Alabama, the youngest child of Charlie Jemison, a roofer and carpenter, and Dorothy (Green) Jemison, an elementary school teacher. Her parents were supportive and encouraging of all of their children’s talents and abilities; Jemison’s sister, Ada Jemison Bullock, became a child psychiatrist, and her brother, Charles Jemison, became a real estate broker. The family moved to Chicago, Illinois, when Jemison was three to take advantage of better educational opportunities there.
Throughout her early school years, Jemison spent many hours in her school library reading about all subjects related to science, especially astronomy. From a young age she was interested in space travel. During her time at Morgan Park High School, however, she became interested in pursuing a career in engineering. When she graduated in 1973 as an honor student, she entered Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship.
Jemison pursued a double major at Stanford, and in 1977 she received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and in African and Afro-American Studies. Just as she had been in high school, Jemison was very involved in outside activities, including dance and theater productions, and she served as head of the Black Student Union. Upon graduation she entered Cornell University Medical College to work toward a medical degree.
During her years at Cornell, Jemison found time to expand her horizons by visiting and studying in Cuba and Kenya and working at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. When she obtained her degree in medicine in 1981, she received her on-thejob training at Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center and later established a general practice. For the next two and a half years, she was the area Peace Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia, where she also taught and did medical research.
Following a dream
After her return to the United States in 1985, Jemison made a career change and decided to follow a dream she had had for a long time. In October of that year she applied for admission to NASA’s astronaut training program. The selection process was delayed after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986, but when she reapplied a year later, Jemison was one of fifteen candidates chosen from a field of about two thousand. She became the first African American woman ever admitted into the astronaut training program.
After more than a year of training, Jemison became an astronaut with the title of science-mission specialist, a job that would make her responsible for conducting crew-related scientific experiments on the space shuttle. On September 12, 1992, with six other astronauts, Jemison flew into space aboard the Endeavour on mission STS-47. During her eight days in space, she conducted weightlessness and motion sickness experiments on the crew and on herself before returning to Earth on September 20. Following her historic flight, Jemison noted that society should recognize how much both women and members of other minority groups can contribute if given the opportunity.
Honors and new challenges
In recognition of her accomplishments, Jemison received the 1988 Essence Science and Technology Award, was named Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year in 1990, received the Ebony Black Achievement Award in 1992, and received a Montgomery Fellowship from Dartmouth College in 1993. Also in 1992 a public school in Detroit, Michigan—the Mae C. Jemison Academy—was named after her. Jemison is a member of the American Medical Association, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she served on the Board of Directors of the World Sickle Cell Foundation from 1990 to 1992. She is also a committee member of the American Express Geography Competition and a board member of the Center for the Prevention of Childhood Malnutrition.
After leaving the astronaut corps in March 1993, Jemison established the Jemison Group, a company that seeks to research, develop, and market advanced technologies (scientific ways of achieving a practical purpose). She is also a professor at Dartmouth College, where she started the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries. Jemison also created The Earth We Share, a science camp for twelve-to sixteen-year-olds that helps improve students’ problem-solving skills.