Dr. Mae C. Jemison is a doctor, engineer, physicist and astronaut who became the first African American woman to travel into space.
Born in 1956, New Scientist noted she was part of the generation of astronauts inspired by Gene Roddenberry’s TV series, “Star Trek.” Watching the crew hurtle across the universe, facing the final frontier, Dr. Mae C. Jemison had no hesitation in thinking she would also fly in space one day. At the time, she discounted the gender barriers to women entering astronaut training, and they didn’t deter her from wanting to boldly go beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
She also discounted the race barriers facing many others like her. In 1992, she made history and became the first Black woman astronaut, flying aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on an eight-day mission with six other astronauts.
However, while she could picture herself in space, it’s possible Dr. Jemison never imagined she would join the crew on the “Star Trek” bridge. But that’s exactly what she did as the first astronaut to appear in “Star Trek.”
The Early Years
Dr. Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, though her NASA biography noted she counts Chicago, Illinois as her childhood home. According to interviews, her parents supported her early curiosity and interest in science. Graduating from high school in 1973, Dr. Jemison headed to Stanford University at only 16 years old.
Although she continued to face discrimination as a woman and as an African American, Dr. Jemison graduated from Stanford in 1977 with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering. She then chose to study at Cornell Medical School, opting for medicine over a career as a professional dancer, which was another strong interest of hers.
During her time as a medical student, Dr. Jemison worked in a Cambodian refugee camp and with the Flying Doctors in East Africa, according to Runnels County Register. She graduated in 1981 and then took up general practice before joining the Peace Corps as a medical officer.
Into Space and Back on Earth
In June 1987, Dr. Jemison was selected for astronaut training with NASA. She became the science mission specialist on STS-47 Spacelab-J, a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan that launched on September 12, 1992. Space.com noted that the Endeavor shuttle flew 126 orbits around Earth before returning on September 20. The first Black woman astronaut, Dr. Jemison spent over 190 hours in space on the shuttle.
She ran the bone cell science experiments alongside other projects the crew took on, and following her time with NASA, Dr. Jemison became active in her own science and technology for social change consulting company. She also became an instructor in environmental studies at Dartmouth College.
Through The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, she started an international science and technology camp, “The Earth We Share,” that encourages middle school students to consider the impacts STEM subjects have on society while building their skills in science, mathematics and technology. Campers come from all over the world, including Scandinavia, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and throughout the United States.
Currently, she’s still an ambassador for science and space: According to the National Women’s History Museum, she now heads the 100 Year Starship Project, focused on getting humans to the nearest star.
That “Star Trek” Moment and More
During the original “Star Trek” TV series, audiences were presented with a more diverse cast than was apparent in society at the time. In the ’60s, it wasn’t common to see this diversity represented on screen and working together in equality — it was a revelation. This was creator Gene Roddenberry’s intention, and his multicultural casting has been described as groundbreaking.
Lieutenant Uhura, played by actor Nichelle Nichols, is one of the key characters in the original series. The Washington Post described how, after the first series, she was thinking of leaving the show. However, she was persuaded otherwise by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told her she needed to stay as a role model for other people of color.
It’s quite fitting, therefore, that, as the first Black woman astronaut, Dr. Jemison frequently referenced “Star Trek” and Lieutenant Uhura during her space mission aboard STS-47 Spacelab-J. According to Energy.gov, Dr. Jemison would use Uhura’s communications call sign, “hailing frequencies open,” each time she began a shift. In 1993, “Star Trek” repaid the compliment, and Dr. Jemison, as Lieutenant Palmer, appeared on the show.
Dr. Jemison has made history already but continues to make incredible advancements in both society and space, the true final frontier.
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