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Engineer, Doctor, Astronaut
"The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up."
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New York, NY - March 14, 2018: Mae Jemison attends National Geographic world premiere screening of One Strange Rock at Alice Tully Hall. Courtesy of Lev Radin.
In recent years, America has been considered a high-powered nation-state living within a unipolar moment of global preeminence. This “restless giant” fosters technological innovation, dynamic populations, and economies of scale that were previously unimaginable. Our nation facilitates an undying yearning to conquer the final frontier.
America as “hyperpower” is how most living citizens understand this country and its role in the world today.
Part of that role comes with a deep and consistent fascination with exploring the cosmos - usually an expensively cumbersome task for most. So, modern human achievements in this realm have fostered ideals within us. Our species’ collective attempt to move beyond the confines of Earth can also serve as a metaphor for our expectations regarding human evolution.
Notably, these idyllic goals are reflected in our popular culture.
The evidence that these dreams have come to fruition are in Mae Jemison’s story.
By 1968, television was becoming a staple in the way people gained different types of information and stimuli. A generation of Americans were coming of age who couldn’t remember a world without it.
Mae Jemison grew up in an America falling in love with television. She often remembers watching “Star Trek” like many in her generation. She also watched the Apollo missions and grew frustrated that there were no women astronauts. A young Jemison was pulled into the wonders of the Space Age.
Jemison hails from Chicago, Illinois but was born in Decatur, Alabama on October 17, 1956. Her family moved a few years after she was born.
In 1973, she graduated high school at sixteen and attended Stanford University in California. Jemison took classes at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as well. She was considering a career in dance or applying to N.A.S.A. (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Jemison finished by earning a Bachelor of Arts in African-American studies and a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering.
Mae Jemison personified the flourishing of American higher education in the last half of the twentieth century.
She progressed to Cornell Medical School and studied for the American Medical Student Association in Cuba. She also worked in Thailand at a Cambodian refugee camp and with the Flying Doctors in East Africa. She was fluent in Japanese, Russian, and Swahili.
Jemison’s service continued when she joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and served with volunteers in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Mae was thoroughly a global person.
But, her interests were influenced by the gains being made at N.A.S.A.
Sally Ride became the first American woman in space the same year Jemison joined the Peace Corps. She is an important figure in the history of women in S.T.E.M (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and in America.
N.A.S.A started recruiting women to be astronauts in 1977. The Los Angeles native and Stanford graduate (she also double majored in English Literature and Physics) applied to N.A.S.A. that same year. She was one of over 8,000 other applicants. Ride participated in two missions on the space shuttle Challenger before she left N.A.S.A.
She co-founded Sally Ride Science with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy. The company focuses on including more young women in S.T.E.M. education.
Milan, Italy - May 08, 2021: Sally Ride on american postage stamp. Courtesy of Shutterstock.
Witnessing Sally Ride breakthrough glass ceilings inspired a young Mae Jemison to apply to be an astronaut. Jemison was accepted in 1987, a year after the Challenger explosion rocked the agency. Jemison worked her way up to being selected as a Science Mission Specialist (a new role that dedicated efforts to conducting experiments) and joined the STS-47 crew.
She became the first African American woman to fly into space on September 12, 1992. She traveled on the space shuttle Endeavor and orbited the Earth 127 times. The ship returned on September 20th.
Los Angeles, CA - December 30, 2015: Panoramic view of Endeavour Space Shuttle in California Science Center on December 30, 2015. Courtesy of Shutterstock.
Jemison continues to be an inspirational figure for young women striving to participate in S.T.E.M.-based pursuits.
She accentuates the legacy of many trailblazing women who came before her.