Mae Carol Jemison

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Mae Carol Jemison

1956-

African-American Astronaut

Mae Jemison was the first black woman to fly in space. Her flight reinforced the inclusion of minorities as professionals in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although Jemison was not the first American woman or African American assigned to a spaceflight, her mission represented the possibilities for a racially diverse astronaut corps to explore space. Since Jemison's selection as an astronaut, many female minorities have joined—as space travelers, scientists, and engineers—NASA's efforts to study the universe.

Born on October 17, 1956, in Decatur, Alabama, Jemison was born to Charlie and Dorothy Jemison. When Jemison was a toddler, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois. Jemison watched the television series Star Trek, admiring the character Lieutenant Uhura, who was a black female astronaut. Reading space books and having watched the televised lunar landing, Jemison planned to become an astronaut even though her teachers at Morgan Park High School tried to deter her. Jemison attended Stanford University, where she suffered from racism from professors who ignored or belittled her. Graduating with dual chemical engineering and African-American studies degrees in 1977, Jemison entered medical school at Cornell University and performed volunteer medical work in Thailand, Cuba, and Kenya between semesters. After earning her diploma, Jemison joined the Peace Corps as a medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia. During this time, she focused on improving vaccines for both hepatitis and rabies. In 1985 Jemison returned to America to work as a general practitioner for CIGNA Health Plans in Los Angeles, California, and also took graduate engineering courses.

At the same time, NASA was seeking qualified female astronauts because civil rights legislation in the early 1970s had forbidden federal agencies from discriminating on the basis of gender. By January 1978 NASA had selected six female astronauts. Jemison was encouraged by the acceptance of women and African Americans in the astronaut corps. She asked black astronaut Ron McNair for advice regarding astronaut evaluation policies. After not being picked on her first try, Jemison was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in June 1987. She was the fifth African-American astronaut chosen and the first black female.

Jemison devoted the next year to training and preparing for her flight. She flew on one shuttle mission that had initially been scheduled for launch in August 1988 but that had been postponed after the space shuttle Challenger exploded. In August 1992 Jemison joined crew members on the shuttle Endeavour. This flight, known as Space-lab J, was significant because it was the first cooperative mission with Japan. Because of her engineering and medical background, Jemison was designated to monitor such scientific experiments as chronicling how hornets, fish, and frogs behaved in microgravity. Jemison also investigated how body fluids shift into astronauts' chests while living in microgravity, and explored possible ways to move the fluid back to their legs before the shuttle landed. She showed how the Autogenic Feedback Training Vestibular Symptomatology Suit could assess astronauts' vital signs and enable wearers to initiate biofeedback in order to mitigate space sickness.

When Jemison returned to Earth, she spoke to groups of children and adults, urging minorities to seek space-related careers because of the equal opportunities offered by NASA. Jemison resigned from NASA and began teaching at Dartmouth College, examining developing countries and space age technology. She created the Jemison Group in Houston, Texas, as a means to advance West African health care. Having retained her aerospace interests, Jemison played a guest role as Lieutenant Palmer on Star Trek: The Next Generation and wrote the afterword for Doris L. Rich's biography of aviator Bessie Coleman, entitled Queen Bess, which was published in 1993.

ELIZABETH D. SCHAFER