Face2Face Africa presents the Faces of Black History – a daily series in the month of February to celebrate people of colour who have opened the door of hope for young black people to realize their dreams.
In commemoration of Black History Month, we shine a light on one trailblazer each day and today, we honour the first African American woman to travel in space, Mae Jemison.
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She is an American engineer, physician and a former NASA astronaut who went into orbit aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992.
Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, on October 17, 1956, and she loved to dance and science. She grew up in Chicago and began dancing at the age of 11. She did all kinds of dance including African dancing, ballet, jazz and Japanese dancing.
Jemison wanted to be a professional dancer and she had to choose between dance and medical school. Her mother inspired her by saying: “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
She entered Stanford University at the age of 16 and graduated in 1977 with a B.S. in chemical engineering. She obtained her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 at Cornell Medical College and interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Jemison traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand, to provide primary medical care to people living there. She worked as a general practitioner in 1982.
Jemison joined the staff of the Peace Corps and served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer from 1983 to 1985 after completing her medical training. She was responsible for the health of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She also worked with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) helping with research for various vaccines.
She was inspired to join NASA by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. She applied unsuccessfully in 1983 and made it to the programme in 1987 as one of fifteen candidates chosen out of roughly 2,000 applicants.
Jemison flew her only space mission from September 12 to 20, 1992, as a Mission Specialist on STS-47. This was the 50th shuttle mission and a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan. She served as a co-investigator of two bone cell research experiments, one of 43 investigations that were done on STS-47. Jemison also conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness on herself and six other crew members. Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space.
She resigned from NASA in March 1993 to pursue her love for science and technology. She founded her own company, the Jemison Group, to research, market, and develop science and technology for daily life. She also founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and named the foundation in honor of her mother.
One of the projects of Jemison’s foundation is The Earth We Share (TEWS), an international science camp where students, ages 12 to 16, work to solve current global problems. The four-week residential program was introduced internationally to high school students in day programs in South Africa and Tunisia.
Jemison is the current principal of the 100 Year Starship, a joint U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA grant project to a private entity to create a business plan that can last 100 years in order to help foster the research needed for interstellar travel. She made the winning bid for the $500,000 project in 2012 through the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence.
Jemison is a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and was a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002. She has written books and has appeared on television shows including an episode of the science fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
She has dozens of honors and awards including nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities.
Jemison built a dance studio in her home and has choreographed and produced several shows of modern jazz and African dance.