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When I think of Dr. Mae Jemison, the image in my mind is of a smiling young Black woman in an orange astronaut suit, possibly wearing or holding the kind of helmet that astronauts wear when they embark upon a spacewalk.
The image in my mind is static, unmoving. It’s lovely and placid.
What that mental image I conjure doesn’t include is a precocious kindergartner confidently placing her hand on her hip and declaring she wants to be a scientist when she grows up; a family moving North during the Great Migration in search of better job opportunities; a young woman who has earned impressive credentials facing down the specter of being turned away from her lifelong dreams because of a heart murmur; or a student coming of age during a time when she must learn this extracurricular lesson: some of her professors’ “racism and sexism were so great as to be threatened by … someone unlike them.”
Yet all of these are true of Jemison, the smiling, orange-suited astronaut in my mind’s eye.
As a child, Jemison loved science and knew from a young age that she wanted to be a scientist. But it was the original “Star Trek” TV show that sparked her interest in pursuing astronautics as her specific scientific field of study. So when she watched along with the rest of the country as the Apollo 11 mission headed to space, she wondered why there were no women or people of color aboard the mission.
Young Jemison plotted an academic trajectory that she knew would make her competitive for colleges NASA deemed favorable and ready her in time to board a mission to space. She learned Russian , aced her SATS, received scholarship offers from Stanford and MIT, and graduated from high school at the age of 16, having skipped the seventh grade.
As the youngests person in Stanford’s dorms as well as a rare person of color in many of her classes, Jemison became discouraged. She dropped Russian after being dismissed by her advisor, and, although Chemistry was her favorite class, Jemison shrank into the back of the classroom after being ignored by Chemistry teacher, who blatantly favored her white male classmates with acknowledgement and praise.
But Jemison was able to gather her resolve and re-commit to her childhood dreams of becoming a scientist and going to space. She found connection and solace by taking up African Studies, Swahili, African Dance and Politics over the next three years. In fact Jemison amassed enough credits for two full degrees by the time she graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree in 1977.
By this time, NASA had expanded beyond requiring all astronauts to be pilots (a requirement that had ensured women didn’t go into space since only men were pilots) and needed specialists like doctors on board as well. Jemison therefore began medical school at Cornell, where, during her final summer, she flew to Kenya to provide first aid and medical training.
Additionally, the year the Jemison graduated from Stanford, NASA teamed up with “Star Trek” star Nichelle Nichols – who had been openly critical of NASA’s lack of diversity – to help encourage diverse applicants to NASA – applicants who had never before been given this remarkable opportunity. As a result of this initiative, NASA received thousands of applications, including those from Sally Ride and Guion Bluford, who were accepted and became the first American woman and African-American man in space.
In 1986, Jemison submitted an application to NASA. Six years later, she boarded the space shuttle Endeavour and became the first African-American woman in space, bringing with her an Alpha Kappa Alpha flag, an Bundu statue, a certificate for Chicago Public Schools students to do well in math and science, and an Alvin Ailey poster of Judith Jamison performing the dance “Cry.”
And in 1993, in a truly full circle moment for the science-loving little girl, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first real-life astronaut to appear on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And how did this undaunted astronaut achieve her childhood dreams? What might be her advice to children today? I think she’d echo her comments regarding what it felt like to be on board the Starship Enterprise: “It’s about imagination…and all of science, all of space exploration, everything we do in the world is about imagination and using your creativity to expand beyond your normal boundaries.”
And she would probably also encourage young people to find where the wind goes.
After all, no one shows a child the sky.