Today we celebrate the badass American engineer, physician, and former astronaut Mae Jemison – who, on this day in 1992, became the first woman of color to grace space with her beautiful presence. During her eight day flight, Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds as she orbited the Earth twenty-seven times in the space shuttle Endeavor during a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan called STS-47. Fun Fact: This was also the 50th NASA shuttle mission.
Jemison created media buzz in 1987 when she was accepted into the elite space program as the first black female astronaut. She was chosen out of approximately 2,000 applicants, becoming one of the fifteen people in the NASA Astronaut Group 12 – the first group selected following the destruction of space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Previously, Jemison attended Cornell Medical School and earned her Doctorate in Medicine in 1981. During her studies, she traveled to conduct research in the countries of Cuba and Thailand where she worked at a Cambodian refugee camp. She also worked for the organization Flying Doctors and was stationed in East Africa. While at Cornell (as if studying to be a doctor isn’t hard enough), she stayed true to her love for dance by enrolling in classes at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. Fun Fact: Jemison built a dance studio in her home and has choreographed and produced several shows of modern jazz and African dance.
Jemison joined the staff of the Peace Corps in 1983 and served as a medical officer until 1985. In addition to being responsible for the care of Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Jemison supervised the organization’s pharmacy, laboratory, and medical staff, and played an important role in implementing manuals and guidelines for health and safety issues. Furthermore, this incredible woman collaborated with the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in order to help with research for various vaccines. Like I said, badass.
Upon returning to the United States from her time with the Peace Corps, Jemison entered into private practice in the Los Angeles, California area, and simultaneously started taking graduate level engineering courses. It’s said that the space flights of Sally Ride and Guion Bluford in 1983 inspired her to apply to the astronaut program. She actually first applied in 1985, but selection was postponed due to the unfortunate fate of Challenger.
Before her space flight in 1992, Jemison’s work with NASA included assisting with launch support activities at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, and being involved in the verification of shuttle computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). It was on September 28, 1989 that Jemison was selected to join the STS-47 crew as Mission Specialist 4; and was also designated Science Mission Specialist, a new trial-run astronaut role by NASA to focus on scientific experiments.
During the STS-47 mission, Jemison tested NASA’s Fluid Therapy System, a set of procedures and equipment to produce water for injection. She utilized IV bags and a mixing method to use the water from the previous step to produce saline solution in space. Jemison was also a co-investigator of two bone cell research experiments, and an experiment in which she induced ovulation in female frogs in order to fertilize the eggs and see how tadpoles developed in zero gravity.
In 1993 she appeared as Lieutenant junior grade Palmer in the Star Trek: The Next Generation sixth season episode "Second Chances".
Some other fun facts to share about Jemison on the STS-47 mission: she always began her space shift communications with an homage to the beloved show Star Trek by saying “Hailing frequencies open”; and she took some personal possessions with her on the flight, which included a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a West African statuette, and a photo of Bessie Coleman - the first African American with an international pilot license.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of Jemison’s achievements post-NASA, since she continues to be a force to be reckoned with even now. She served on the board of directors for the World Sickle Cell Foundation; founded The Jemison Group Inc. (a consulting firm which studies the sociocultural impact of technological advancements and design) and the Dorothy Jemison Foundation of Excellence (which has a project called The Earth We Share, a science camp for students ages 12 to 16 that has been implemented internationally, as well); collaborated with Bayer Crop Science and National 4-H Council for an initiative called Science Matters, which is geared towards encouraging youth to understand and pursue agricultural sciences; and finally, penned a handful of books about her incredible life and experiences as a woman of color.
Thank you, Mae Jemison, for being such an inspiration to all – especially to the ladies here at Yugen who think you’re the bee’s knees. As one last note, I’d like to mention that while researching this fabulous gal, I came across a series of Google Q&A videos where Jemison touches upon varying questions and topics, including International Women’s Day, gender equality, space travel, life advice, etc. I would recommend taking a look and listen since she’s such an interesting person with lots of tasty intellectual morsels to offer. Keep being super awesome and smashing silly stereotypes, Mae – we’ve got your back!
P.S. If anyone is in the Frederick, MD area, she's going to be a part of the fabulous Speaker Series at the Weinberg Center! Tickets are on sale now, and she'll be here on February 20, 2020.