Oct. 17, 1956-
Decatur, Alabama, United States
Occupation: Astronaut, Physician
Essence Award, Essence magazine, 1988; named Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year,1990; honorary doctorate, Lincoln University 1991; Ebony Black Achievement Award, 1992; an alternative public school in Detroit was named The Mae C. Jemison Academy, 1992; Alpha Kappa Alpha, honorary member.
By the time she was thirty–one, Mae Jemison had received a double major in Chemical Engineering and African–American studies and had served as a doctor in the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She also made history when she was selected from a pool of 2,000 applicants and became the first black woman selected to be an astronaut by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She then went on to publish a book for kids and founded her own company, the Jemison Group.
Becoming an astronaut was, as Marilyn Marshall noted in Ebony, a "natural progression" for Jemison. As a young girl and teenager she was always interested in science, especially astronomy, and was encouraged by her parents and teachers to pursue not only her science studies but also dance and art. She earned a double degree at Stanford University — in chemical engineering and Afro– American studies — and then studied medicine at Cornell University. While at Cornell she traveled to Thailand and Kenya to provide primary medical care services. After completing her medical internship Jemison joined the Peace Corps and worked as a staff physician in West Africa. "I took care of Peace Corps volunteers and State Department personnel in Sierra Leone and I oversaw the medical health care program for volunteers in Liberia," Jemison explained to an Ebony contributor.
Jemison was working as a general practitioner in Los Angeles when she first applied to the space program, in October of 1985 — three months before the space shuttle Challenger accident that killed seven astronauts. NASA postponed the application process because of the Challenger incident, but Jemison still aspired to become an astronaut and reapplied in 1986. "I didn't think about [the Challenger] in terms of keeping me involved," she told Marshall. "I thought about it because it was very sad because of the astronauts who were lost, but not in any way keeping me from being interested in it or changing my views about things." Jemison was one of 15 candidates selected from a field of nearly 2,000 aspiring astronauts. In addition to her assignment as mission specialist, she worked as a liaison between the Johnson Space Center in Houston and NASA crew members in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Jemison came a step closer to being the first black woman in space when she was assigned the role of mission specialist for the June of 1991 shuttle Discovery flight, Spacelab–J. A joint venture with Japan, Space lab–J was charged with conducting life science and materials processing experiments in space to help scientists better understand the environment. As a mission specialist — or "scientist astronaut" — Jemison's responsibilities included, as she explained to Marshall in Ebony, being "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."
On September 12, 1992, over five years after joining NASA, Jemison became the first African–American female to go into space. She served as a science mission specialist during an eight–day voyage upon the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Jemison's job was to study weightlessness and motion sickness on the seven–person crew. She also conducted an experiment with tadpoles. "We wanted to know how the tadpoles would develop in space with no gravity," she explained to Essence. She continued, reporting that "When we got back to Earth the tadpoles were right on track, and they have turned into frogs."
Joseph D. Atkinson, Jr., head of NASA's Equal Opportunity Programs Office, described Jemison as a "very stately, intelligent, sincere and stable young woman." Commenting to Marshall, he added that Jemison earned high marks for being not only "highly qualified technically," but also "extremely sensitive to the social needs of the community." Regarding her role as the nation's first black woman astronaut, Jemison commented to Ebony on what her achievement might signify to other women. "The thing that I have done throughout my life is to do the best job that I can and to be me.... In terms of being a role model, I really feel like if I'm a role model, what I'd like to be is someone who says, 'No, don't try to necessarily be like me or live your life or grow up to be an astronaut or a physician unless that's what you want to do.'"
In addition to her 1988 Essence Award, she was named the Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year in 1990 and in 1992 received the Ebony Black Achievement Award in 1992. She also received an honorary doctorate from Lincoln University in 1991. Then, in 1992 an alternative public school in Detroit was named for her The Mae C. Jemison Academy. During those years she conducted science experiments for NASA and kept up her interests in medicine and science with various board memberships, including a stint from 1990 to 1992 on the Board of Directors of the World Sickle Cell Foundation. She also held memberships in the American Medical Association, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has gone on to serve on the advisory committee of the American Express Geography Competition and as an honorary board member of the Center for the Prevention of Childhood Malnutrition.
In March of 1993 Jemison decided to leave NASA and she soon accepted a prestigious Montgomery teaching fellowship at Dartmouth College. That same year she founded The Jemison Group, a firm that researches, develops, and markets advanced technologies. She soon turned her considerable talents and energies towards helping children in school, particularly with science. She explained her goal to Essence, "What we have to figure out is how to maintain the three C's of science — curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking — in our children." Jemison has done her part by cosponsoring an annual International Science Camp for kids aged 12 to 16. The month–long summer camp is free to qualified applicants and focuses on critical thinking and experiential learning. She also promoted science for kids by serving as the National School Literacy Advocate for the Bayer Corporation's program "Making Science Make Sense." However, probably her broadest step towards reaching kids was the 2001 publication of her book Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from My Life. Publishers Weekly wrote of the book, which is aimed at children in grades seven through 12, "this inspiring autobiography is a testimony to the power of setting goals and the strength of character necessary to achieve them."
However, Jamison's achievements have not shielded her from one of the uglier facts of our society — police brutality. In 1996 Jemison was stopped for a routine traffic violation in Nassau Bay, Texas. Upon finding that Jemison had a previous speeding violation, the officer, who was white, attempted to arrest her. In the course of the arrest he grabbed her hand, twisted her wrist, and forced her to the ground. Jemison filed a complaint with the police department. It was quoted in part in Jet: "In my opinion, there is absolutely no justification for an officer to treat the people he is sworn to protect in this high–handed and abusive manner." She continued, "The officer was disrespectful and abusive. I kept asking him why he was doing this." Pending an investigation the officer was suspended with pay.
Despite this ugly incident, Jemison continued to serve as a role model to women and African Americans. She told Newsweek, "One of the things that I'm very concerned about is that as African–Americans, as women, many times we do not feel that we have the power to change the world and society as a whole." With her life and accomplishments she has proven that idea very, very wrong.