Women’s History Month: Mae C Jemison, Astronaut

By NASA – NASA Image and Video Library (file), Public Domain

Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, on October 17, 1956, the youngest of three children of Charlie Jemison and Dorothy Jemison (née Green). Her father was a maintenance supervisor for a charity organization, and her mother worked most of her career as an elementary school teacher of English and math at the Ludwig van Beethoven Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. The family first lived in Woodlawn and later the Morgan Park neighborhoods. Jemison knew from a young age that she wanted to study science and someday go into space. The television show Star Trek, and in particular African-American actress Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura further stoked her interest in space. LeVar Burton learned that Jemison was an avid Star Trek fan and asked her if she would be interested in being on the show. In 1993, Jemison appeared as Lieutenant Palmer in “Second Chances”, an episode of the science fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, becoming the first real-life astronaut to appear on Star Trek.

Upon returning to the United States after serving in the Peace Corps, Jemison settled in Los Angeles, California. In Los Angeles, she entered into private practice and took graduate level engineering courses. The flights of Sally Ride and Guion Bluford in 1983 inspired Jemison to apply to the astronaut program. Jemison first applied to NASA’s astronaut training program in October 1985, but NASA postponed selection of new candidates after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Jemison reapplied in 1987 and was chosen out of roughly 2,000 applicants to be one of the fifteen people in the NASA Astronaut Group 12, the first group selected following the destruction of Challenger. 

Jemison flew her only space mission from September 12 to 20, 1992, on STS-47,a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan, as well as the 50th shuttle mission. Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space and orbited the earth 127 times. The crew was split into two shifts with Jemison assigned to the Blue Shift. Throughout the eight day mission, she began communications on her shift with the salute “Hailing frequencies open”, a quote from Star Trek.  STS-47 carried the Spacelab Japan module, a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan that included 43 Japanese and United States life science and materials processing experiments. Jemison and Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri were trained to use the Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE), a technique developed by Patricia S. Cowings that uses biofeedback and autogenic training to help patients monitor and control their physiology as a possible treatment for motion sickness, anxiety and stress-related disorders.

Jemison also founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and named the foundation in honor of her mother. One of the projects of the foundation is The Earth We Share, a science camp for students aged 12 to 16. Founded in 1994, camps have been held at Dartmouth College, Colorado School of Mines, Choate Rosemary Hall and other sites in the United States, as well as internationally in South Africa, Tunisia, and Switzerland. The Dorothy Jemison Foundation also sponsors other events and programs, including the Shaping the World essay competition, Listening to the Future (a survey program that targets obtaining opinions from students), Earth Online (an online chatroom that allows students to safely communicate and discuss ideas on space and science), and the Reality Leads Fantasy Gala. If you would like to learn more about her organization, click this link: http://jemisonfoundation.org/about/

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