Engineer, astronaut, physician, entreprenuer, dancer: how Mae Jemison became the first woman of colour in space

Mae Jemison
16 Dec, 2020

Jonathan Bradley

When Dr. Mae Jemison was born in Alabama in 1956, the American South was still governed under racially segregated Jim Crow laws and no Black woman had ever worked as an engineer at NASA.

Jemison and her family moved north to Chicago when she was three, and by that time, Mary Jackson had become NASA’s first African American female engineer. It would not be until 1992, however, that the US space agency would launch a Black woman into orbit.

That woman — who was by then also an engineer, as well as a dancer and a physican — was Jemison.

She will discuss her story, and what the future holds, during her keynote address at Engineers Australia’s 2021 International Women's Day event on 10 March.

“Since I was a little girl I had always assumed I would go into space,” she told the New York Times in 2003. “When I grew up, in the 1960s, the only American astronauts were men.”

The first glimpse of Earth she caught from space was her hometown of Chicago.

“Looking out the window of that space shuttle, I thought if that little girl growing up in Chicago could see her older self now, she would have a huge grin on her face,” she said.

The path that little girl in Chicago took to get into orbit was an ambitious and intellectually omnivorous one. Jemison has described having a curiosity about the world from a young age.

“When I was growing up, I was very excited, yes, about space, about all kinds of sciences,” she told the Huffington Post. “I was also excited about fashion design, I danced all the time, I loved art.”

And she had a precocity to match the diversity of her interests, starting her undergraduate studies at Stanford University at the age of 16.

“When I graduated from college I graduated with degrees in chemical engineering and also in African and African American Studies,” she said. “So my life has always been this piece where you work on lots of different things together.”

Art or science? Why not both
She has described her multidisciplinary study as making her “even more aware of different points of view about the world”, and even after graduating, she found herself torn between further pursuing her interest in dance or going to medical school.

“My mother told me, '’You can always dance if you're a doctor, but you can't doctor if you're a dancer’,” she said, explaining her decision to study at Cornell University’s medical school in the New York Times. Nevertheless, she continued dancing while studying, and, after medical internship, became Area Peace Corps Medical Officer overseeing volunteer and staff healthcare in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“Initially, I thought that going overseas and working in West Africa for two and a half years would not help me at all with anything else. I was just doing it as an aside and then I was going to come back and do biomedical engineering,” she told the Citizen Times of Asheville, North Carolina.

“Turns out, it was probably a great help for getting into the astronaut program because of how much responsibility and operational work I had to do.”

It was 1985 when Jemison first applied to become an astronaut, and she approached the prestigious program with characteristic directness.

"I picked up the phone, I called down to Johnson Space Center, I said I would like an application to be an astronaut,” she recalled. “They didn’t laugh!”

Being the first woman of colour in space was not on her mind.

“There may be a certain naivete when I say, when I applied to the astronaut program I didn’t even think about the fact of whether I would be the first African American woman in space,” she said.

“I wanted to go into space. I didn’t care about if there had been a thousand people in space before me or whether there had been none; I wanted to go.”

In fact, she has since said she was bothered that she was the first.

“When I was a little girl, I couldn't understand — nor can anyone explain to me now, beyond the political and cultural reasons — why women weren't part of the astronaut program from the very beginning,” she told Graduating Engineer.

“I'm not the first woman of colour to have the skills, the talent or the desire to be involved.”

But soon after Jemison applied to the program, NASA put human-crewed space flights on hold, after the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986.

It wasn’t until 1987 that Jemison would be accepted into the program, and 1992 when she took her space flight on board the Space Shuttle Endeavour. It was a collaboration between the US and Japan, and NASA’s 50th shuttle mission.

Jemison took with her a certificate for Chicago Public Schools, a poster of Alvin Ailey dancer Judith Jamison, and a statue from women’s society in West Africa; keepsakes that she would share and hoped would communicate that space exploration was something the entire planet should be a part of.

On a mission
The mission lasted for seven days, 22 hours and 30 minutes, and among the experiments that the crew conducted were bone cell research and an inquiry as to what happens to frogs that start life in zero-gravity. (The answer, as recorded by a 1995 New Scientist headline: “Space frogs grow up to lead a normal life”.)

It would be Jemison’s one and only space flight; she had new challenges to look forward to on Earth. Her colleagues at NASA were sorry to lose her.

“NASA had spent a lot of money training her; she also filled a niche, obviously, being a woman of colour,” Homer Hickham, her training manager on the mission, told Stanford Today in 1996.

“I see Mae as sort of an all-around ambassador … She just really wanted to make a connection with the world.”

Since returning to Earth, Jemison has made a name for herself in the public and private sectors, working on a variety of business and non-profit ventures. She has also been celebrated in a variety of popular culture forums, from an appearance on Star Trek — she’s a big fan of the long-running science fiction series — to being recreated in Lego form and celebrated by Barbie.

Jemison’s current activities include working as Principal at 100 Year Starship, a global initiative seed-funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that seeks to overcome the challenges of human interstellar travel.

“100 Year Starship is really about creating platforms for wildly radical innovation,” she told the Citizen Times.

“Innovation in spheres of yes — technology, design, engineering, propulsion and energy — but also around behaviour, governance, economic investment, biology and life sciences.

“Why do I say that? Because if you start to think about humans traveling beyond our solar system to another star, it requires the full scope of human expertise, talent and experience.”

It has been 28 years since Jemison became the first Black woman to go into space, but she has used the time since to focus on the future.

“Having been the first means you have a place at the table, you have an opportunity to talk at a platform, and for me it’s how to use that platform,” she said.

“My particular interest is in making sure that people know that they can be involved with not just space exploration, with science, with daring things, with helping shape what the world becomes.”