Womens’ History Month
Mae Jemison, NASA’s first African-American female astronaut

Astronaut Mae Jemison Working in Spacelab-J while on STS-47 mission in 1987. (photo: NASA)

African-American astronauts in the United States Space Program include 14 African-Americans to actually fly into space. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly in space, was selected into the astronaut program in 1987 and served as a mission specialist on STS-47 (space transport system mission number 47), on the shuttle Endeavour.

Before her historic flight in 1987, four other African-American astronauts flew into space. Air Force Colonel Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., who became a NASA astronaut in 1979, completed four space flights as a mission specialist, logging over 688 hours in space. Dr. Ronald McNair was the second African-American to orbit the Earth, a mission specialist who died with six other crew members when Challenger exploded shortly after launch on his second mission, January 28, 1986. Fredrick Gregory flew three missions and was the first African-American to pilot and command a Space Shuttle mission. Charles F. Bolden, Jr. flew on four missions, and became the twelfth Administrator of NASA on July 17, 2009.

Mae Carol Jemison (born October 17, 1956) earned degrees in chemical engineering and African-American studies at Stanford University, becoming fluent in Japanese, Russian and Swahili. At Stanford, Jemison served as head of the Black Students Union. She also choreographed a musical and dance production called Out of the Shadows. During her senior year in college, she struggled with the choice between going to medical school or pursuing a career as a professional dancer after graduation. She graduated from Stanford in 1977, receiving a B.S. degree in chemical engineering and B.A. degree in African and African-American studies.While at Stanford, she also pursued studies related to her childhood interest in space and first considered applying to NASA.

She received a doctor of medicine degree from Cornell University and served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. When Jemison concluded her training in 1988, she became the fifth black astronaut, and the first black female astronaut, in the history of NASA. She completed her first flight in 1992, an eight-day mission STS-47 (launched September 12, 1992), where she logged 190 hours, 30 minutes and 23 seconds on the space shuttle Endeavor as a mission specialist – making her the first black woman to go into space.

Throughout the eight day mission, she began communications on her shift with the salute “Hailing frequencies open”, a quote from Nichelle Nichols’ character Uhura on Star Trek. Jemison took a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater along with a West African statuette and a photo of pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman with.her on the flight.

Jemison left NASA in 1993 and founded a technology research company. She later formed a non-profit educational foundation and through the foundation is the principal of the 100 Year Starship project funded by DARPA. Jemison also wrote several books for children and appeared on television several times, including in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She holds several honorary doctorates and has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.