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Unsung Heroes: Mae Jemison

2011 August 2

At some point in their childhood, most people want to be astronauts when they grow up. A member of an elite few, taking huge risks in the name of science and getting to see a view of the Earth no one else will. A lot of children probably also want to grow up to be doctors; intelligent, prestigious, and well paid. Mae Jemison wasn’t content to just aspire to one or the other. Oh no. Mae Jemison grew up, as she was confident she would, to be a doctor in space. How much ass does that kick? All of it.

Born in Alabama in 1956, Jemison’s family moved to Chicago in 1959 to take advantage of the better educational opportunities there. Jemison took to the sciences with ease, doing well enough in her studies that she was able to enrol at Stanford University aged just 16.

In kindergarten, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told her a scientist. She said, ‘Don’t you mean a nurse?’ Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a nurse, but that’s not what I wanted to be.

Mae Jemison

Jemison faced barriers due to both racism and sexism at Stanford, particularly in the engineering department, a place that was (and unfortunately to some extent still is) the domain of well off white males. She describes, looking back, occasions where professors would ignore her input while congratulating her male classmates for the exact same comments, and credits her success in part to the youthful arrogance of a teen allowing her to push on through.

NASA photo of African-American astronaut Mae Jemison in her orange flight-suit. Image via Wikimedia Commons, shared under a Creative Commons license.

After getting her chemical engineering degree Jemison went on to study medicine at Cornell, graduating in 1981. She did extensive work abroad during her time there, ranging from Thailand to Kenya as a primary care provider, and eventually joining the Peace Corps in 1983. With the Peace Corps she served in Sierra Leone, acting both as a medical doctor and a writer of guidelines, care manuals, and research proposals.

So, we’ve established she’s pretty goddamn awesome as both a doctor and a scientist. But I promised you a doctor in space, and so far it’s all been ground bound1. So, onto her career with NASA.

Rejected on her first try, Jemison was accepted into the program in 1987, the first class of astronauts to be enrolled after the 1986 Challenger disaster. She worked in launch support at the Kennedy Space Centre while training for her launch, helping to send other shuttle flights up into orbit. Her own turn came in 1992, when she became the first black woman to go into space, flying aboard the shuttle Endeavour with the six other astronauts of STS-47.

I wouldn’t have cared less if 2,000 people had gone up before me … I would still have had my hand up, ‘I want to do this.’

– Mae Jemison, speaking to the Des Moines Register in 2008

For the next 190 hours Jemison would orbit the Earth, one of the select few to see the planet from above for themselves.2 She conducted a series of life science experiments on how living organisms responded to the microgravity of space. This included one of her own devising, to study the effects of orbital conditions on bone cells. On September 20th 1992, Jemison and the rest of the mission’s crew returned safely to Earth, having spent the last eight days being awesome enough to risk death in the name of science.

STS-47 was to be Jemison’s only space mission, as she retired from NASA shortly after her return. She wanted to focus on social issues surrounding technology, its impact in developing nations, and means of mitigating future-shock. To this end she founded two rather cool organisations. First up, doing applied research, there’s the Jemison Group, set up to develop technology for daily life, which has worked on projects including thermal energy generation for developing countries, and satellite communications for facilitating health care in West Africa.

Her second project was the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, named for her mother. The foundation runs international science camps for students in their teens, aimed at encouraging people to think globally about how technology can deal with problems. The group works to build critical thinking skills and scientific literacy, which is a pretty damn solid aim.

Oh, and a last point of geeky coolness (which obviously is the most important kind), Jemison appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation after LeVar Burton discovered she was a fan and invited her to take part. That makes her the first real life astronaut to have featured on the show. It’s a neat bit of circularity, given that Jemison cites Nichelle Nichols’s performance as Lt. Uhura as one of her motivations for joining NASA.

So, doctor, astronaut, advocate for science education, and she even got to hang out on the bridge of the Enterprise. That’s a pretty good definition for a badass life right there.

  • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting fascinating people we never learned about at school. Rob Mulligan also blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes, or send your own in to [email protected]!
  1. Well, excepting an incident in Sierra Leone where Jemison commandeered a hospital plane to evacuate a volunteer with meningitis and worked throughout the flight to keep them alive, racking up an eventual total of 56 hours solid work. []
  2. As of today only around 500 people have been up there, depending on exactly what you define as “in space”. []
4 Responses leave one →
  1. August 2, 2011

    Great post! I remember that ST:TNG episode well. It was a bit part as the transporter operator.

  2. August 2, 2011

    Fantastic! Mae Jemison is AWESOME! In fact, right now I cannot think of a rival candidate for the title of Most Awesome Human Ever. And, on a personal note, it makes me happy that she was born just down the Tennessee River from where I lived as a small child :)

  3. Viktoriya permalink
    August 2, 2011

    I am so delighted you wrote about Mae Jemison! She, alongside Valentina Tereshkova, is a major personal hero of mine and this post does her justice. You might want to check out her Twitter for further awesomeness, including her occasional online twitter exchanges with Nichelle Nichols herself. Doctor, astronaut, on the bridge and online – love it.

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