Visible Women

The remarkable true story of Mae Jemison, the first woman of colour in space

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re paying tribute to Mae Jemison, the first woman of colour and first African-American woman in space.

What did she do?

“…Two, one. Solid rocket ignition. And lift off! Lift off of Endeavour on America’s fiftieth space shuttle flight.” On 12 September 1992, Endeavour blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre. One of the crew, Mission Specialist Four Mae Jemison, was making history. As the rockets fired against the Florida launch pad, Jemison was on her way to becoming the first woman of colour and first African-American woman in space.

Born in 1956 in Decatur, Alabama, Mae Carol Jemison moved to Chicago with her family aged three. As a child she loved science and stargazing and avidly watched the moon landings on television, but she didn’t fail to notice that all of the astronauts were white men. She worried that this would give any extraterrestial beings they might encounter the wrong message.

She later said: “Believe it or not, as a little girl, I was like, ‘What would aliens think of humans? Would they think these were the only humans?’”

Jemison began studying at Stanford University when she was just 16, graduating in 1977 with a BSc in chemical engineering, while also, amazingly, fulfilling the requirements for a BA in African-American studies. She didn’t sit back, but went on to medical school, qualifying in 1981 at Cornell. She then decided to join the Peace Corps, working as a medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia. 

Mae Jemison with the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour 

When she returned to the US, Jemison worked as a GP and took engineering courses in her spare time (you may notice that Jemison’s concept of ‘spare time’ is not that of others).

Meanwhile, space was still on her mind. “I always assumed I would go into space,” she said. “Not necessarily as an astronaut; I thought because we were on the moon when I was 11 or 12 years old that we would be going to Mars. I’d be going to work on Mars as a scientist.”

Having watched Sally Ride become the first American woman in space just a few years before, Jemison decided it was time to apply for NASA’s astronaut program. In 1987 she was accepted.

At first, she worked at the space centre and on computer software at the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. By 1992, she was ready for her first mission.

That was STS-47, a cooperative mission between the US and Japan to gather life science and materials data. Once in space, Jemison conducted experiments on motion sickness, weightlessness and bone cells.

What is her legacy?

Having fulfilled her ambition, Jemison resigned from NASA in 1993 and went to work in academia. That year she also became the first real astronaut to appear in Star Trek.

Today, she runs a medical technology company, BioSentient, and supports a children’s science camp she founded in 1994.

She also supports Celebrating Women of Colour in Flight, her scheme highlighting achievements of women in aerospace and aviation.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Bijou Karman / Getty