There is a bit of political wisdom we have lived with for half a century now, which says that spending money on space travel, while social problems still exist upon the Earth, is wasteful at best and downright immoral at worst. Get all of the people fed first, critics of spaceflight often say, then you can go into space all you want, as if the problems involved in doing the former are easily solvable by the resources tied up in carrying out the latter. The problem with that line of thought is, of course, that it assumes a nation cannot be several things at once – that advancing any one area of human concern must come at the expense of another, and that a person who devotes their lives to space flight must do so myopically, without appreciation or concern for humanity’s other, and nearer to home, projects.
But nations and individuals alike carry multitudes within them, and there are few examples of humanistic and exploratory instincts not only residing in the same person, but augmenting and elevating each other, than the first African American woman in space, astronaut Mae Jemison. By turns a medical doctor, engineer, developing nation health care worker, space explorer, political activist, media personality, writer, and dancer, Jemison shows that the drive to know more about our universe doesn’t need to come from a cold place of calculating conquest, but can be the ultimate expression of artistic, intellectual, and humanitarian drives all pulling together towards a more equitable future.
Mae Jemison was born in Alabama in 1956, the youngest of three siblings, but by the age of three her family had moved to Chicago, part of the Second Great Migration that saw five million African Americans move from the South to the North and West in the decades following World War II, seeking better job and educational opportunities. As a child, Jemison possessed a voracious desire to not only know about the world, but to do things in it. She devoured books on astronomy and planetary development during her weekly raids on the local library, built careful models of the Earth’s evolution over time, and begged her parents for dance lessons.
A precocious and fearless youth, Jemison seemed blissfully unaware of what is and isn’t done in the pursuit of knowledge. During high school, when she decided she wanted to know more about sickle-cell anemia, she simply called up Cook County Hospital and asked to be connected with the head technician of the hematology lab. That act of daring got her an invitation to visit the hospital, which in turn became an informal internship complete with an original research project.
By 16 years of age, Jemison graduated high school and was accepted into her dream college, Stanford University. At the time of her entry, Stanford had only recently begun their experiment with co-ed dorms, a situation that the young Jemison took remarkably in stride as she dove into the complicated world of higher education. She embraced the opportunity to study African history and language, engage in student activism, and play pick-up football games with her classmates, even as she found her way often barred by unsympathetic professors who couldn’t quite believe that a young black woman could be seriously considered as on par with the predominantly white male students in the engineering department. In spite of her chock full schedule and the presence of institutional roadblocks, Jemison graduated from Stanford in 1977 with a double major in Chemical Engineering and African and African American Studies.
It was at this point that Mae Jemison the future astronaut very nearly became Mae Jemison the professional dancer. In the last quarter of her time at Stanford, she staged and choreographed Out of the Shadows, a dance production to be held at Stanford’s Little Theater. The show was a success, and Jemison considered taking the next year off of school to see if she could make it as a dancer/choreographer before proceeding on to medical school, a plan she ultimately dropped on her mother’s noting, “You can always dance if you are a doctor. But you can’t easily doctor if you are a dancer.”
So, Cornell Medical School it was, and yet another change in perspective for the intellectually flexible Jemison. As a chemical engineering student, she was used to understanding fundamental principles and building upwards from those – if a particular value or constant was needed, it could always be looked up, and the memorization of columns of standardized values was not considered to be a fruitful use of brainpower or time. She started as a medical student assuming the same approach would apply – know the underlying chemical principles and you should be able to derive the resulting bodily behaviors. That was, to put it mildly, not how medical school worked or works, and her first class in Gross Anatomy brought her to the realization that she would have fundamentally to rethink her approach to this new field of knowledge, regearing herself as a memorization machine.
That is not an easy process to undergo – the mathematical brain and medical brain make very different demands – but Jemison managed it, and further managed to combine her scientific interests with her humanitarian and global concerns, spending the summer after her second year as a medical student in Kenya, working with the Flying Doctors (African Medical Education and Research Foundation), whose goal was to bring medical services to underserved regions of East Africa. It was a formative experience that would lead to her accepting, after a year interning at the Los Angeles Medical Center, a position as the Area Peace Corps Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia. Jemison served as the director of health services for all the members of the Peace Corps in those countries from 1983 to 1985, in which capacity she not only saw patients as a primary care doctor, but managed the facilities that made the most out of the limited resources at hand in combating a wide array of deadly tropical illnesses.
Returning to the United States, Jemison worked as a general practitioner at a Cigna facility in Los Angeles while continuing her education in engineering and business, while also beginning the process of applying to the NASA astronaut program. Just two years previously, Sally Ride had become the first American woman in space, inspiring a generation of like-minded overachievers to follow in her footsteps. Jemison sent her first application into NASA in 1985, but astronaut selection was delayed by the 1986 Challenger disaster, and so it was not until 1987 that Jemison had a chance to re-apply for the program. Two thousand qualified applications were received in that round, of which fifteen would ultimately be selected for Astronaut Group 12, Jemison among them.
She was the first Black woman to be selected as a NASA astronaut, and in 1992, she became the first Black woman in space aboard STS-47, where she served as one of four mission specialists, responsible for overseeing the forty-plus experiments loaded into Spacelab J. The mission lasted 190 hours, and was Jemison’s only venture into space. She retired from NASA in 1993 (the same year that she appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, marking the first time someone who had actually been in space appeared on the show). Subsequently, she devoted herself to issues involving the intersection of technology and culture. She formed Jemison Group Inc in 1993 as a consulting firm specializing in issues of how to make tech designs that are accessible to developing sectors of the world, and in 2012 took over lead of the 100 Year Starship project, which studies what resources and institutions will be necessary to allow the achievement of human interstellar travel within the next century.
Jemison continues her work on multiple fronts, as we could only expect from a person of such multifaceted talents and interests. She has coupled the fame she gained as the world’s first Black woman astronaut with the decades of experience she has built up as an engineer, doctor, explorer, and activist to create new educational initiatives and public programs that will bring the benefits of scientific study and exploration to a broader-based world community, while also fostering the intellectual curiosity and opportunities for academically underdeveloped parts of the world. A wider array of perspectives entering into science, working in a feedback loop with a science that looks beyond the capacities and concerns of the first world – it’s an exciting prospect, and one perfectly tailored to a person like Mae Jemison to shepherd through the next decades of our grand human experiment.
FURTHER READING: Mae Jemison wrote a young adult memoir in 2001, Find Where the Wind Goes, which is an incredibly engaging account of her life, focusing on her years as a child and student. I have the 2020 2nd edition of the book, which unaccountably still contains dozens of typographical errors that Signal Hill Road Publishing deserves a hearty wag of the finger for allowing into their final product. Jemison deserves decidedly better quality control than that, as do the young people reading about her life. Still, it’s a great story, and Jemison’s style is eminently readable. Jemison also has about seven pages devoted to her life in Karen Bush Gibson’s wonderful Women in Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures (2014).
Lead image credit: By NASA on The Commons – Mae Jemison, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100598647