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Mae Jemison

American engineer and astronaut Mae Jemison works in zero gravity in the center aisle of the Spacelab Japan (SLJ) science module aboard OV-105, the Space Shuttle Endeavour, during NASA’s STS-47 mission, September 20. 1992. | Source: Space Frontiers / Getty

UPDATED: 9:30 a.m. ET, Sept. 12, 2022

The accomplishment that landed American physician and former NASA astronaut Mae Carol Jemison into the annals of history is quite an inspiring feat: On September 12, 1999, Jemison fulfilled a lifelong dream she held ever since she was a small girl in Chicago by becoming the first African-American woman to fly into space.

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Although she was born in Decatur, Ala., her parents moved to Chicago to give their daughter the best educational opportunity. Even back then, Jemison dreamed of going into space, “I always assumed I’d go into space,” she said to a group of Denison University students in 2004. “I thought, by now, we’d be going into space like you were going to work.”

Jemison’s chance to take to the skies didn’t happen immediately. She took up dance at the age of 9, and has held a lifelong adoration of the art along with her enthusiasm for the sciences. A prodigious high school student, she graduated at age 16 and entered Stanford University in 1973.

Graduating in 1977 with a dual degree in chemical engineering and African-American Studies, Jemison faced racism from professors as a Black woman taking up engineering. She fought through the blockades in her career, however, undaunted by the professors who didn’t appreciate her.

Jemison later obtained a Doctor of Medicine in 1981 from Cornell University and travelled to third world and developing countries to provide primary care. While at Cornell, she took dance classes at the legendary Alvin Ailey school; this would later lead to her building a studio at her home and producing dance shows.

The ambitious Jemison then joined the Peace Corps, serving as a lead medical officer between 1983 and 1985. It was during this time Jemison felt it was her chance to go to the stars.

The NASA program had begun taking applications after Sally Ride’s historic flight around Earth. Initially denied for entry, Jemison was accepted by the program in 1987 and began working on the technical side of shuttle operations at the Kennedy Space Center. Much later, Jemison would make history.

Jemison’s first and only space mission happened today in 1992 on the 50th mission for the space shuttle program known as “STS-47” aboard the shuttle Endeavour. Jemison and crew were sent on the mission to conduct experiments on life and material sciences but not without the big dreamer taking in the wonders of her accomplishment.

“The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown,” Jemison said in a 2003 New York Times piece. “It was such a significant moment, because since I was a little girl, I had always assumed I would go in to space. When I grew up, in the 1960s, the only American astronauts were men. 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.”

Watch Jemison’s life story here:

While Jemison valued her time as an astronaut, she would resign from NASA in 1993 to pursue her passions of social sciences and technology. She began her own research company, The Jemison Group, that same year. A big fan of the sci-fi show “Star Trek,” she appeared on the program of the “Next Generation” series of the franchise with some help from actor Levar Burton.

Although she shunned the title of role model with measurable reluctance, Jemison’s achievements are cemented by her extreme humility. In Jemison’s mind, she was destined to be great and expected her every success. Spanning a vast career path as a dancer, astronaut, businesswoman, and college professor, Mae Carol Jemison is a shining star much like the ones she flew among 23 years ago.


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