The woman who reached for the stars
Is space travel the ultimate human achievement? Continuing our series on modern role models to mark Black History Month, we look at the extraordinary life of astronaut Mae Jemison.
“Flight crew, close and lock your visors. Initiate O2 flow. Good luck on your mission, and see you in a week.”
With these words, amid a burst of red flames and towering smoke, the space shuttle embarked on its perilous journey.
For all the astronauts on board, clad in bright orange pressure suits, the launch marked the culmination of years of hard work and rigorous training.
But for one woman, it was not only an incredible personal achievement but also an historic moment. As the Endeavour crossed through the Earth’s atmosphere on 12 September 1992, Mae Jemison became the first black woman ever to travel into space.
Jemison was born in Alabama in 1956 but moved to Chicago, the city she calls her hometown, aged three.
As a child she spent hours watching Star Trek and studying astronomy, but the lack of female astronauts on the Apollo missions played on her mind. “Everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being really irritated that there were no women astronauts.”
Not everyone encouraged her passion for space. When she told one teacher she intended to pursue science, they assumed she wanted to be a nurse.
Aged just 16, won a scholarship to the prestigious Stanford University to study chemical engineering, but in a place with few black students, her intelligence was often dismissed.
“I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb. Then, when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say, ‘That’s a very astute observation.’” She later recalled that it was her “youthful arrogance” that helped her face the discrimination.
A keen dancer, Jemison considered becoming a professional upon graduation but instead opted for medical school. As a doctor, she travelled the world, training in refugee camps in Thailand and working as a Peace Corps medic in Sierra Leone.
For many people, this might be a list of achievements to last a lifetime, but in 1985 Jemison decided to change her career and follow her childhood dreams.
Unwilling to “wait around in a cornfield, waiting for E.T. to pick me up”, she applied to NASA’s training programme. It was not good timing — the 1986 Challenger disaster put the selection process on hold — but when she reapplied a year later she was one of just 15 people chosen from 2,000 candidates.
She finally achieved lift off as part of STS-47, the 50th Space Shuttle mission. Orbiting the earth 127 times in eight days, Jemison took part in 43 experiments, including a study of tadpoles in zero gravity.
And throughout it all, she remained a huge Star Trek fan. In space, she began shifts with the salute “hailing frequencies open”. Then, when she returned to Earth, she became the first real astronaut to appear on the Star Trek TV series.
STS-47 proved to be Mae Jemison’s first and last space flight. But since leaving NASA in 1993, she has become an academic, a public speaker, an entrepreneur and even a children’s author. And she still dances.
So, is space travel the ultimate human achievement?
Out of this world
Yes, say some. Mae Jemison overcame terrific challenges, including racism and sexism, to become the first black woman in space. Thousands of people are successful in business, and even medicine, every year, but only a select few ever become astronauts. They undergo brutal training regimes in order to undertake pioneering research in a hostile environment — astronauts deserve all the respect they get.
No, say others. There is no doubt that Mae Jemison is an extremely impressive person, but it is her work as a Peace Corps doctor, children’s writer and even dancer that we should be most inspired by. Her time with NASA was only a short part of a long and incredible career, and it is Jemison’s willingness to defy naysayers to pursue her passions – not her space travel – that is most remarkable.
- Do you need to be arrogant to be successful?
- So far, Mae Jemison has been a doctor, astronaut, dancer, entrepreneur and writer. Does she set an impossible standard for the rest of us to live up to?
- Draw a picture of Mae Jemison dancing aboard the Endeavour Space Shuttle.
- Write a short story about the first group of humans to ever set foot on Mars.
Some People Say...
“Space is for everybody. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.”Christa McAuliffe (1948–1986), American teacher and astronaut
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that the scientific breakthroughs discovered as a result of space exploration have an enormous impact on our everyday lives. The vast network of satellites orbiting the Earth not only helps people navigate all over the world but also allows weather forecasters to predict calamities such as hurricanes and to track wildfires. Moreover, engineers designing equipment for space travel have inadvertently invented components for everything from camera phones to memory foam mattresses.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate surrounds the future of space exploration. As the world marks the start of International Space Week, questions remain over the possibility of more space shuttle missions, and in spite of repeated predictions, humans have still not reached Mars. Despite US President Trump’s commitment to the US Space Force, a new military service, Mae Jemison herself has spoken of a lack of public commitment to space exploration, saying “people don’t see why it made a difference”.
- Named after the HMS Endeavour, the ship that took Captain James Cook on his voyage of discovery, the American space shuttle went on 25 space missions between 1992 and 2011.
- Star Trek
- A science fiction series that began as a TV show in the 1960s. Jemison was particularly inspired by African American actress Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of the character Lieutenant Uhura.
- Apollo missions
- The Apollo programme was a series of missions run by NASA to land humans on the Moon. In 1969, the first man walked on the Moon as part of Apollo 11.
- As a child, she was a background dancer in the musical West Side Story. Later, she took a poster from a dance theatre into space and even danced during the mission.
- Peace Corps
- An agency and volunteer programme set up by the US government in the 1960s to provide social and economic assistance to developing countries. Jemison worked in both Liberia and Sierra Leone with the group.
- The title character from a 1980s science fiction film about a boy who befriends an extraterrestrial who is stranded on Earth.
- Challenger disaster
- The Challenger space shuttle, part of the US space programme, broke apart 73 seconds into its 10th flight in January 1986, killing all seven crew members.
- Space Shuttle
- The fourth human spaceflight programme carried out by NASA between 1981 and 2011. Each mission could take up to eight astronauts into space.
- Children’s author
- Jemison wrote a memoir of her life for children in 2001 and co-authored a series of four children’s books about the solar system in 2013.
- Training programme
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a US government agency, has trained 350 astronauts since the 1960s.