When the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off on its second mission, it carried the first African American woman into space. But Mae Jemison is more than an astronaut — she's also a physician, a Peace Corps volunteer, a teacher, and founder and president of two technology companies. Let's take a look at this remarkable woman.
Born in Decatur, Ala., on Oct. 17, 1956, Mae Carol Jemison moved to Chicago at the age of 3 and considers the city her hometown. The youngest of three children born to a maintenance worker and an elementary schoolteacher, she had a fascination with all things science from an early age. Once, after receiving an infection, she performed an extended experiment on pus. Jemison's parents supported her desire to be a scientist.
"My parents were the best scientists I knew, because they were always asking questions," Jemison said in a 2005 press release.
Jemison did well in high school, and attended Stanford University on scholarship at the age of 16. There, she attained her bachelor of science in chemical engineering and a bachelor of arts in African and African-American studies. She went on to earn her doctorate in medicine from Cornell University in 1981. [Women in Space: A Gallery of Firsts]
After working as a general practitioner, Jemison served two and a half years as a volunteer in the Peace Corps, spending time in the African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. In addition to English, she speaks Russian, Japanese and Swahili.
Reaching the stars
Although employed as a general practitioner again following her return to the United States, Jemison decided to pursue a childhood dream. After the historic flight of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Jemison applied to NASA's astronaut program, feeling that more opportunities had opened up. The explosion of the Challenger shuttle put a hold on applicants, but in 1987, she became one of the 15 candidates selected out of more than 2,000 people. After a year of training, she became the first female African American astronaut. [Infographic: NASA's Space Shuttle – From Top to Bottom]
On Sept. 12, 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African American woman in space when the space shuttle Endeavour carried her and six other astronauts on 126 orbits around the Earth. A mission specialist, Jemison was a co-investigator of two bone cell research experiments, one of 43 scientific investigations that were done on mission STS-47. The shuttle landed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 20. Over the course of her only space voyage, Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds in space.
Jemison left NASA in March 1993. She went on to teach at Dartmouth College. She also founded her own company, the Jemison Group, which seeks to encourage a love of science in students and bring advanced technology to schools around the world. She is a strong advocate for science and established an international science camp for high school students.
She has also taken over leadership of the 100-Year Starship program established by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The project works to make human space travel beyond the solar system a reality within the next century — but in a way that includes and benefits as many people on Earth as possible.
Quotes from Mae Jemison
"The thing that I have done throughout my life is to do the best job that I can and to be me." – Ebony Magazine, October 1987
"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations...If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out ... You can hear other people's wisdom, but you've got to re-evaluate the world for yourself." – At the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, November 2009
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Nola Taylor Tillman is a contributing writer for Space.com. She loves all things space and astronomy-related, and enjoys the opportunity to learn more. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Astrophysics from Agnes Scott college and served as an intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. In her free time, she homeschools her four children. Follow her on Twitter at @NolaTRedd