Space, the final frontier. In 1992, a savvy and courageous astronaut made history for boldly going where no African American woman had gone before. She later made appearances on the very show that inspired her love for space in the first place. Do you know who this trailblazer is?
Mae Carol Jemison was born on October 17, 1956 and moved to Chicago, Illinois when she was three years old. Growing up, Jemison was always passionate about science and space, but she also expressed interest in theater and dancing. During her senior year, Jemison was trying to decide between medical school or professional dancing. Her mother told her, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer,” and the rest is history. Jemison attended Stanford University when she was just 16, graduating in 1977 with a B.S. in chemical engineering and a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies. Later obtaining her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 at Cornell Medical College before interning at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center as a general practitioner. During this time, Jemison continued dancing and even choreographed and produced several shows of modern jazz and African dance.
After completing her medical training, Jemison joined the Peace Corps and served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer from 1983 to 1985. Later on, inspired by Nichelle Nichols portrayal of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, Jemison joined NASA in 1987. Some of her first assignments with NASA included work on launch support activities at the Kennedy Space Center and verification of Shuttle computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. On September 12, 1992, became the first African American woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. In true Trekkie fashion, Jemison began each shift in space by informing Mission Control that, “hailing frequencies were open.”
In 1993, Jemison resigned from NASA to found her own company, the Jemison Group, that researches, markets, and develops science and technology for daily life. At the same time, Star Trek’s LeVar Burton learned Jemison was a fan and invited her to appear on the show. Jemison appeared as Lieutenant Palmer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, earning her the distinction of being the first real astronaut to appear on the show. She was followed by astronauts E. Michael Fincke and Terry Virts, who appeared on Star Trek: Enterprise. Jemison also appeared on the television documentaries Star Trek: 30 Years and Beyond and How William Shatner Changed the World.
Jemison holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities and is currently principal of the 100 Year Starship organization. This is a joint U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA grant project focused on fostering the research needed for interstellar travel.