Mae Jemison is a massively influential woman.
Being the first Black woman in space should make her widely known, but her story and achievements have sadly only reached a small audience.
Her story starts in Chicago, in a rough neighbourhood. Growing up surrounded by gangs and violence, achieving well in school was the only opportunity she saw to better her future, an idea promoted strongly by her mother. Eventually her mother moved her family to a different neighbourhood, however here Jemison was the only black girl, likely faced with much conflict, constantly deemed by her peers as less worthy of success. Jemison’s diligence and passion for learning allowed her to excel in this high school and she graduated early, at sixteen, after which she developed an interest in engineering.
Due to this enthusiasm, she was accepted into Stanford, one of the top universities worldwide, and worked towards a degree in chemical engineering. In 1977 Jemison then attended the Ivy League university, Cornell, and studied international medicine.
However, unfortunately due to her race, and the racism prevalent in the USA , Jemison had to study relentlessly, and so much harder than her peers, often having to fight for a place and the mere respect of others, being a Black woman in a field so overwhelmingly dominated by white men. She then received the opportunity of her dreams, and was able to volunteer in Kenya, innovating and helping many with her contribution to the hepatitis-B vaccine. This helped many people as this vaccine is still used in many areas to this day.
Jemison then found what can arguably be described as her true calling in life, after moving back to the USA, when she applied to work for NASA. Her first application to the Astronaut Training Programme in 1985 was unsuccessful, due to the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, however, driven by her enthusiasm and aspirations, she tried again a few years later, and was selected as a candidate out of 2,000 other applicants. It was through this that she was able to become the first Black American woman in space.
When in space, Jemison flew on the STS-47 mission, the 50th mission from NASA. She flew 194 orbits, and, while aboard the Spacelab, Jemison worked in the testing of NASA’s Fluid Therapy System, a set of procedures and equipment to produce water for injection; she also participated in fertilising frogs and then seeing how tadpoles developed in zero gravity.
Eventually Jemison left NASA to start her own technology consulting firm. She left NASA with an exceptional achievement, having accomplished a degree in Chemical Engineering, African American studies, a Medical degree, and a title in both the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and the International Space Hall of Fame.
Mae Jemison’s existence is such an important and much needed reminder for Black women, especially for young Black girls, as a message that they can be so much more than whatever, often demeaning, biases and characteristics society has thrown onto them. It’s a reminder that they don’t exist merely as the objects they have been portrayed as for so many years. It’s a reminder that they can be the next astronauts, engineers, mathematicians of the world.
That’s really what celebrations like Black History Month are all about.
It’s a reminder that Black people are not chained to the binding words that have been used to describe them. They are so much more.
By Sade Smith and Valentina Del Bo