The Legacy of Mae Jemison, the First Black Woman to Travel Space

Breaking through glass ceilings and also earth's atmosphere.

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Feb 16 2018, 7:18pm

Long before she became the first black woman to travel to space, Jemison was a young girl frustrated by the lack of diversity in the faces behind the Apollo Missions. Inspired by actress Nichelle Nichols’s portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek—one of the first roles in a major television series that featured a Black woman not portraying a servant—she was determined to be successful and turned her focus to her studies.

Jemison spent much of her childhood in Chicago’s South Side with her head in the books. Her devotion to education payed off when at 16 she was admitted to Stanford University where she served as the head of the Black Student Union and joined the school’s dance program. She graduated in 1977 with a B.S. in chemical engineering and a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies, and received a doctorate in medicine from Cornell University in 1981.

In 1983, after she witnessed Sally Ride become the first American woman in space, Jemison applied to the NASA astronaut program. But her application was delayed after the tragic Challenger accident in 1986. Nevertheless, she reapplied and was one of 15 people of over 2,000 to be selected for the program. After five years of training, she embarked on her first mission STS-49 on space shuttle Endeavor.

Jemison left NASA in 1993 and went on to found 100 Year Starship, an institute dedicated to researching and inventing interstellar travel within the next 100 years.

Because she shattered a major glass ceiling for young women of color in the sciences, Jemison remains an inspiration for those pursuing careers in the many fields dominated by white men today. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Jemison famously said: "Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations... If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out.”