First African American woman to be accepted to NASA’s astronaut training programme, first African American female astronaut, first African American woman in space, first astronaut to act in a space fiction TV serial, Mae Jemison is a woman of many firsts. She was born on October 17, 1956, in Decatur, Alabama, the youngest child of Charlie Jemison and Dorothy Green. Her father Charlie was a carpenter and a roofer and her mother was a primary school teacher. When she was three, her family shifted to Chicago, so that the children would have better educational opportunities. Mae has always considered Chicago her home town.
FACT 1: Mae studied in Morgan Park High School and graduated in 1973 when she was 16. She was a consistent honour student and won the National Achievement Scholarship to attend Stanford University.
FACT 2: At Stanford she was involved in many extracurricular activities including dance and theatre productions. She was the head of the Black Students Unoin. She graduated in 1977 with a double degree, chemical Engineering and Afro-American Studies.
FACT 3: Mae had always dreamed of being a dancer and after her degree she wished to pursue a career in dance. However following her mother’s advice she joined Cornell University Medical College and got her MD in 1981. “You can always dance if you are a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you are a dancer” were the words her mother used to convince her.
FACT 4: In 1985, Mae made a career change and applied for admission to NASA’s astronaut training programme. However due to the ‘Challenger’ disaster which killed 7 astronauts, the admissions were delayed. Mae said she was extremely saddened by the incident. However, being the determined person that she is, she reapplied in 1986 and was one of the 15 chosen out of a field of 2000. Thus she became the first African- American woman to be admitted to the programme.
FACT 5: She completed the training in 1987, to become the first African American female astronaut. On September 12, 1992, she flew into space aboard the Endeavour, on the STS47, Spacelab J mission. There were six other astronauts on this joint US Japanese mission. She was the Science Mission Specialist and conducted experiments in weightlessness and motion sickness on the other crew members and herself. She clocked more than 190 hours in space, on this mission. This made her the first African American woman in space.
FACT 6:J.D. Atkinson Jr. of NASA described Mae as being ‘extremely sensitive to the needs of the community’ She has always has a strong social conscience. As a medical student she studied in Cuba and Kenya and worked at a Cambodian refugee camp. After completing her studies she worked as the area Peace Corps medical officer. She also worked in Liberia, where she did medical research.
FACT 7: She is a lover of the Arts. In 1993 she appeared as Lieutenant Palmer, a member of the fictional Starfleet of Star Trek, in the episode ‘TNG’s Second Chance’. She is the only NASA astronaut to have appeared on TV in a fictional space drama.
FACT 8: After leaving NASA in 1993, she has devoted much of her time and energy to developing the spirit of ‘the three C’s of Science; Curiosity, Creativity and Critical Thinking’ in school children. She is the co-sponsor of the month long Annual International Science Camp for children between 12 and 16. The camp focuses on critical thinking and experiential learning.’ In 2001 she published a book aimed at children in grades 7 through 12. The book is called ‘Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments From my Life’
FACT 9: She speaks Swahili, Russian, Japanese and English fluently, is a collector of African Art, and is proficient in African dancing, ballet, modern dancing, jazz and even Japanese dancing.
FACT 10: She is a great inspiration to young people and an alternate school in Detroit, Michigan has been named after her, but she lives quietly in Houston, Texas, with her two cats, Sneeze and Little Mama.