Mae Carol Jemison
October 17, 1956 – Present
Mae C Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama the last of her parents, Dorothy and Charlie Jemison’s, three children. Her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father worked as a carpenter and maintenance worker. When Jemison was three years old, the family relocated to Chicago, Illinois where she spent the rest of her childhood.
An uncle in Chicago introduced her to science and her parents encouraged her childhood interests which included anthropology, archaeology, evolution, and astronomy. NASA’s Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo programs began when Jemison was a child and she watched coverage of the missions. Jemison noticed that there were no female or Black astronauts in the program. But Jemison firmly believed that she would travel into space after seeing Nichelle Nichols portray Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek.
Part of her parents’ reason for moving was to provide their children with the opportunity to obtain a better education than they felt Alabama would offer. Jemison was a diligent student who spent hours in the school library devoting her free time to learning as much as possible about science, especially astronomy. This dedication to her studies resulted in Jemison graduating from high school at age 16 and receiving a scholarship to attend Stanford University.
While at Stanford, Jemison was one of the few Black students in her class and encountered racism. But Jemison was not deterred, instead, she joined the Black Student Union and eventually became the group’s president. Her other extracurricular activities included staging dance and theater productions, one of which was Out of the Shadows, a program about the Black experience. In 1977, Jemison graduated from Stanford with dual bachelor’s degrees in Chemical Engineering and African-American studies.
Jemison planned to pursue a medical degree and next enrolled at Cornell University Medical College in New York. During medical school Jemison spent time studying in Kenya, leading a research study in Cuba, and volunteering at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. Jemison obtained her medical doctorate in 1981 and completed a one-year internship before briefly working as a general practitioner. She then spent two years working with the Peace Corps as a medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In addition to teaching and providing medical care, Jemison also contributed research to the development of a hepatitis B vaccine.
When Jemison returned to America, she went back to working as a general practitioner and established a private practice. Once again continuing her education, Jemison enrolled in graduate engineering classes. In 1983 Sally Ride became the first American woman in space which inspired Jemison to pursue her long-held dream of going into space. She applied to NASA’s astronaut training program but the selection of new candidates was put on hold after 1986’s Challenger explosion. A year later, NASA selected a group of 15 from the 2,000 candidates that applied and Jemison was one of the 15 selected.
Training began on June 4, 1987, making Jemison the first Black woman in NASA’s program and upon completion a year later, America’s first Black woman astronaut. Her training as a mission specialist prepared her for providing launch support and shuttle software verification at the Kennedy Space Center and Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. Jemison was called up for her first assignment in September 1989 to serve as the Science Mission Specialist on the STS-47 crew.
Three years later on September 12, 1992, Jemison achieved her childhood dream when she entered space aboard the Endeavor, becoming the first Black woman in space. The crew spent eight days in space during which time Jemison conducted material sciences, life sciences, and bone cell research. Using herself and other members of the crew as subjects she conducted weightlessness and motion sickness experiments.
After returning to Earth, Jemison remained at NASA until March 1993. Following her resignation, she established Jemison Group, Inc., a consulting company utilizing engineering and science to address socio-cultural issues. She spent nine years at Dartmouth College teaching within the Environmental Studies department and directing an institute named after her which focused on sustainable tech. In 1999, Jemison became a professor at large at Cornell University.
Through the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, a non-profit she created in honor of her mother, Jemison developed multiple programs to support students, teachers, and parents. Of particular note are an international science program for kids 12-16 and a collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District for underserved students in the area.
A fan of Star Trek, Jemison was invited to appear on an episode, becoming the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Over the years Jemison has received numerous honorary degrees and awards. She currently lives in Houston, Texas.
- Alexander, Kerri Lee. 2019. “Mae Jemison Biography.” National Women’s History Museum. 2019. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mae-jemison.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Mae C Jemison.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. July 15, 2021. https://www.biography.com/astronaut/mae-c-jemison.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ed. 2021. “Mae Jemison.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. October 13, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mae-Jemison.
- “Dr. Mae Jemison.” n.d. Dorothy Jemison Foundation. Accessed November 27, 2021. https://jemisonfoundation.org/about/mae-jemison/.
- “Mae C. Jemison.” 2015. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. June 3, 2015. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_168.html.
- “Mae Carol Jemison.” n.d. New Mexico Museum of Space History. Accessed November 27, 2021. https://www.nmspacemuseum.org/inductee/mae-carol-jemison/.
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