Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Black History Month: Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison may have decided to become an astronaut because of . . . pus.

When Mae was a little girl, she got a splinter in her thumb, and the thumb became infected. She showed the thumb to her mother, who explained that that yellow stuff that was in her wound was pus.
"What's that?" Mae wondered.

Because her mother encouraged her to find out the answer for herself, she ended up doing an entire project on pus.

That curiosity and determination to learn answers molded her into engineer, doctor, and then the first African-American woman in space.

Mae Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama on October 17, 1956, the daughter of a roofer/carpenter and an elementary school teacher. When she was three, her family moved to Chicago.  She grew up in an atmopshere where she was supported and encouraged, as shown by how her mother handled the question about pus.

Jemison showed a talent not only for science but also for dance. In fact, during her childhood, she wanted to be a professional dancer. As she got older, she decided to become a biochemical engineer, and when she graduated from high school in 1973, she went to Stanford University.

Jemison was 16 when she went away to school. Only later did she realize that there were any issues associated with her being so young or with her parents being confident enough to send her so far away from home. She also had professors who were uncomfortable with a young black woman being in their classes. Even with that, though, she found her time at Stanford to be "wonderful and very positive" and believes that her not-so-positive experiences there made her a better person.

After graduating from Stanford, Jemison went on to Cornell Medical College. She earned her degree in 1981 and then joined the Peace Corps. Over the next few years, she traveled to places such as Cuba and Kenya and Thailand, giving medical care to those who needed it. She later served as a Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

So how and why did Mae Jemison make the leap from engineer and doctor to the astronaut program?

Because of Lieutenant Uhura.

Mae Jemison is a child of the '60's, and she was fascinated by the role Nichelle Nichols played in Star Trek as communications officer. Jemison says that "images show us possibilities", and that image, of a black woman involved in a scientific pursuit, planted a dream inside her to go into space.

She got her chance on June 4, 1987, the day she was admitted into the astronaut training program as its first African-American woman. Had the Challenger not blown up the previous year, she would have been admitted sooner. Her training earned her the title of "science mission specialist", responsible for conducting scientific experiments on the space shuttle.

Five years after beginning her training, on September 12, 1992, Mae Jemison sat at the top of the space shuttle Endeavour and listened as NASA counted down, "Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . and, liftoff!" That liftoff put her into history as the first African-American woman to go into space.

Before that liftoff, she telephoned Nichelle Nichols and thanked her for inspiring her to become an astronaut, and then promised her that, during her time in space, she'd do something that fans of Star Trek would appreciate. She began each shift with the words, "Hailing frequencies open," the line Lieutenant Uhura used in her duties as the fictional USS Enterprise's communication officer. She spent eight days in space, conducting experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness on the crew and on herself as well.

Jemison left NASA in 1993. Since then, she's taught at Dartmouth and Cornell Universities, and she's formed her own consulting company, the Jemison Group, which researches and develops advanced technologies. And she's traveled around the United States speaking about her experiences as astronaut and scientist.

And it all happened because a little girl who was curious about her infected finger was encouraged to go find out the answer.

Sources used:

"Dr. Mae Jemison interview," Scholastic.com
"Mae C. Jemison", Biography.com
Katz, Jesse. "Shooting Star: Former Astronaut Mae Jemison Brings Her Message Down to Earth." Stanford Today, July/August, 1996.
Greene, Nick. "Mae Jemison: First African-American Woman Astronaut." About.com



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