"More women should demand to be involved. It's our right. This is one area where we can get in on the ground floor and possibly help to direct where space exploration will go in the future."
Many people dream of flying high, but few have flown as high as Mae Jemison. In September 1992, when the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off with Jemison aboard, she became the first African-American female astronaut.
Many months of training and many years of education led up to this achievement, though not all of these preparations had been in the sciences. Jemison specialized in the sciences, earning degrees in medicine and chemical engineering, but she also had set her mind on being a well-rounded person with wide interests. She earned a degree in African and African American studies and went off to experience the world, working among the poor in Cuba, Thailand, and Africa.
"Science is very important to me," she has said, "but ... one's love for science doesn't get rid of all the other areas. I truly feel someone interested in science is interested in understanding what's going on in the world. That means you have to find out about social science, art, and politics."
After retiring from NASA in 1993, Jemison established a company called the Jemison Group that researches and develops technology for daily activities. A few years later in 1999, she established a medical technology company that develops and markets mobile equipment that can monitor the body's vital signs. Over the years, Jemison also has appeared on several television programs, including on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and on the 2006 PBS miniseries African American Lives. She later became the principal of the 100 Year Starship Project, which is dedicated to sending humanity to another star by the next century.
Mae Jemison was fascinated by science from the time that she was four years old, when her uncle first sparked her interest in the subject. She was encouraged by her parents, Charlie and Dorothy Jemison. Charlie was a maintenance supervisor and Dorothy a schoolteacher, and both were determined to provide Mae and her brother and sister with as broad an education as possible. Since the opportunities seemed better farther north, the family moved from Alabama to Chicago, Illinois, when the children were small.
At school, Jemison was often found in the library, reading books about evolution or astronomy. She especially enjoyed science fiction, though she did not at the time imagine she would ever be an astronaut. Her first choice of a career was more down to earth. While attending Morgan Park High School, she was taken around a local university, and as a result, she decided to become a biomedical engineer.
To gain the necessary background for this profession, Jemison took courses in biology, physics, and chemistry, but she found time to have an enjoyable social life too. She took dance classes and art lessons, and was an active team member in various school projects. Despite all these activities, Jemison was an honor student at Morgan Park High, and when she graduated in 1973, she won a National Achievement Scholarship to Stanford University. At Stanford, Jemison threw herself wholeheartedly into university life. She was head of the Black Student Union and gave classes on racism and other relevant subjects. At the same time, she was involved with dance and theatrical groups, producing and directing shows as well as performing in them. This led to a trip abroad in 1976, when she visited Jamaica as a representative of Stanford University at the Caribbean festival there.
In 1977, Jemison graduated from Stanford with a B.Ch.E. in chemical engineering and a B.A. in African and African American studies. She then enrolled at Cornell University Medical School and graduated with an M.D. degree in 1981.
Social worker and doctor
During her years as a Cornell medical student, Jemison took every opportunity to do more traveling. As well as wanting to widen her experience, Jemison was eager to help others, and she found that she could do both by serving as a medical volunteer in the summer months. The volunteer work took her to Cuba and to a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, where she treated desperately thin, half-starved people who were suffering from tuberculosis and dysentery. In 1979, she made her first trip to Africa—an experience she thoroughly enjoyed. Jemison's work there involved doing health studies in rural Kenya.
At Cornell, Jemison was as active in student organizations as she had been at Stanford, and it was not long before she was elected president of the Cornell Medical Student Executive Council, a role that took up a lot of her time. Even so, she found time in 1979 to organize a citywide health and law fair in New York on behalf of the National Student Medical Association.
Works for the Peace Corps
After Jemison completed her medical degree and internship, she worked for a year as a general practitioner in Los Angeles, California. But she longed to return to Africa, and in 1983, she joined the Peace Corps as a doctor. She then spent the next two years in West Africa, where she served as medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia.
This was challenging work, partly because Jemison was so young. At twenty-six, she often found it difficult to get people to take her seriously, but they soon found how competent she was. Her work in Africa not only involved being doctor to the volunteers and the embassy staff, but she also had a host of other duties. As medical officer, she was responsible for teaching medical courses, supervising the laboratories, writing health manuals for the local people, and generally overseeing public health and safety in the area. It kept her very busy, and she loved every minute of it.
When Jemison returned home in 1985, she joined CIGNA Health Plans as a general practitioner in Los Angeles. She also began to think seriously about space travel. Ever since she had become fascinated by astronomy as a child—and ever since she had read her first science fiction story—there had been a curiosity about space, the dream that she might one day explore the skies. As a result of the U.S. space program, this was now a practical possibility, and Jemison had a suitably wide-ranging background and appropriate qualifications. To improve her chances, Jemison decided to enroll in night courses in engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. Meanwhile, she sent in her application to NASA, hoping to fulfill her dream.
Not long after Jemison applied to NASA, the space program suffered a terrible tragedy. On January 28, 1986, minutes after the space shuttle Challenger was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, it exploded and blew apart, killing all the astronauts on board. What had gone wrong? Until the scientists at NASA could discover the answer to that question, it was announced that there would be no more space flights.
This tragedy did not discourage Jemison from pursuing her dream to be an astronaut. As soon as the space program started up again, Jemison sent in a new application. In 1987, she received the exciting news that of the two thousand people who had applied to NASA, she was one of fifteen who had been selected for special training. If she passed the course, there was a strong possibility that she would become a space traveler within a few years.
The training course was no picnic. It involved tough physical challenges as well as specialized scientific training. Jemison had to learn how to jump with a parachute, and she had to practice surviving in the wilderness and in water, in case of accidents. On the technical side, she had to know about the workings of the space shuttle. "We are the ones who are often called the scientist astronauts," she explained to Ebony magazine. "Our responsibilities are to be familiar with the shuttle and how it operates, to do the experiments once you get into orbit, to help launch the payloads or satellites, and also do extra-vehicular activities, which are the space walks." It was a lot to learn, but Jemison passed the course with flying colors and was duly qualified as a mission specialist. Now all she had to do was wait her turn.
Jemison's chance came in September 1992, when she made history as a crew member on the eight-day space mission of the Endeavour. This was a cooperative venture between the United States and Japan, and Jemison's duties included fertilizing frog eggs in space and seeing how they developed into tadpoles. She also gathered data on various medical aspects of space travel, such as motion sickness, and, like the other astronauts, she did her share of the general duties connected with the shuttle.
After returning to earth, Jemison was honored by many groups and even had the Mae C. Jemison Public School in Detroit, Michigan, named after her. She always has made a point of visiting schools to talk to students, hoping to inspire them with the same love of science that has made her own life so exciting.
Establishes science camp
Jemison retired from NASA in 1993. Following her retirement, Jemison accepted a teaching fellowship at Dartmouth College and established a company called the Jemison Group, which researches, develops, and markets advanced technologies. Several years later in 1999, she founded a medical technology company called BioSentient Corporation, which develops and markets mobile equipment that is designed to monitor the body's vital signs. The Houston-based company obtained the license to commercialize NASA's Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE), which provides a way for patients to monitor and control their physiology as a treatment for anxiety, stress, and other related disorders.
Then in the summer of 1994, Jemison conducted the first annual International Science Camp. By bringing together high school students from across the United States and abroad, she hoped to spark their interest in pursuing a career in science. In addition, she also founded The Earth We Share (TEWS), an annual international science camp designed for students ages twelve to sixteen. The four-week residential program helps youth build critical thinking and problem-solving skills through an experimental curriculum, and teaches them how to work together to tackle current global issues. Jemison also serves as the chair for the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and has served as Bayer Corporation's national advocate for the Making Science Make Sense initiative. Jemison has been on a number of company boards, including those for Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Scholastic Inc., Valspar Corporation, and others. She also has chaired the Texas State Product Development and Small Business Incubator Board and the Texas State Biotechnology and Life Sciences Industry Cluster.
Sought after as a public speaker, Jemison speaks to national and international audiences on a variety of topics, including science literacy, sustainable development and technology design, education, and the importance of increasing the participation level of women and minorities in science and technology fields.
Jemison was a professor-at-large at Cornell University and a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002. In 2009, she joined First Lady Michelle Obama in a forum for promising young girls in the Washington, D.C., public school system.
100 Year Starship Program
n June 2012, Jemison led a team that received a $500,000 grant to make interstellar space travel a reality. The Defense Advanced Agency awarded the grant to the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence to form the 100 Year Starship Program (100YSS), an independent collaborative effort between the foundation, Icarus Interstellar, and the Foundation for Enterprise Development after the team submitted a proposal called "An Inclusive, Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth and Beyond." Jemison now serves as the principal for this program. She also cowrote several children's books as part of the 100YSS program to interest young people in the possibility of interstellar space travel.
In addition to these activities, Jemison also has appeared on television shows and in some documentaries over the years. In 1993, she fulfilled a lifelong dream when she appeared on an episode of the hit television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. She also has appeared as herself on various television specials like How William Shatner Changed the World (2005) and in the PBS television miniseries African American Lives (2006).
Awards and Honors
Jemison has received a number of awards and honors during her life. In 1993, Ebony magazine included her on its list of 50 Most Influential Women. That same year, she also was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Jemison also is an inductee of the National Medical Association Hall of Fame and the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. In 1993, Jemison also received the Kilby Science Award, which is awarded to top scientists. In 2004, she was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame, and she is the recipient of the NASA Space Flight Medal. In 2005, Jemison received the National Audubon Society's Rachel Carson Award. Jemison also holds a number of honorary doctorates from a variety of institutions like Dartmouth College, Princeton University, DePaul University, and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU.