Have you ever sat outside on a dark night and stared up at the stars, wondering what’s out there? It’s not always possible in the city, but if you get away from the lights, on a very dark and clear night, you can see thousands of stars. People have watched the stars and wondered about them for as long as there have been people. What are they made of? How many are there? How far away are they? Why do they seem to move to different parts of the sky? Why do they twinkle?
As other people have looked up at the stars like you, they have dreamed about visiting these far away places. As a child, Mae Jemison was one of them. Mae lived in a city, but during the summers as a child she went to camp. There, outside the city, it was dark enough to see the stars, and like you she wondered about other planets and stars and space. Then, she began to dream about what it would be like to go there. And as Mae grew older she didn’t stop dreaming of going to space.
Mae Jemison was born in 1956 in Alabama. At this time, Alabama still had many laws that were unfair to African Americans like Mae’s family. So, when she was three years old, her parents moved the family to the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. They thought they would be able to find better work for Mae’s mother and give their children a better education there. Her father was a roofer and carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher.
The 1960s were an exciting time for space exploration. These years began with the first humans being launched into space! Yuri Gagarin, a Russian astronaut, was first and then Alan Shepherd, an American, was also launched into space. These years ended with humans landing on the moon for the first time: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969.
But, as Mae watched all of these exciting events unfold, what she didn’t see in the space programs were people like herself or her family: African Americans and women. She followed every detail of the Apollo missions that brought humans to the moon. She enjoyed stargazing and imagining what it would be like to be in space. She went to the library and read everything she could find about space and science. But Mae wanted to see women a part of these programs, too. Still, Mae didn’t stop thinking and dreaming about space. On TV she found inspiration in the sci-fi show Star Trek, where one of the crew was a black woman doing important work as part of a starship crew. And, her parents encouraged her to explore her interests. She studied earth history, chemistry, dance, and theater all in addition to space.
Growing up, Mae once told her teacher that she wanted to be a scientist. The teacher responded by asking if she meant to say “nurse.” Although being a nurse is a very important job, Mae stood firm and corrected her teacher, saying she really did want to be a scientist. She wasn’t about to have someone tell her what she should be.
Later, other grown-ups encouraged Mae, such as a middle school teacher who helped her research different space and science related jobs. Different people in your life may encourage or discourage you, but you should never be afraid to say what you think or pursue a subject that interests you! Be sure to pay the most attention to people who care about you and encourage you and build you up!
In college, Mae studied chemical engineering, but was also involved in dance and theater productions. In fact, she even considered trying to become a dancer! But Mae decided to continue studying science and went to medical school. From there, she studied in Cuba and Kenya, and also worked in a refugee camp in Thailand. A refugee camp is where people fleeing a war go to be safe, and Cambodia had just ended a long civil war. After medical school, Mae went on to work for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. She speaks Swahili, Japanese, Russian, and, of course, English.
But through all this, Mae never stopped thinking about her dream to go to space. In 1985 she applied to the space program led by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Association. To her joy, they accepted her, making Mae the first African American woman to enter the astronaut training program! During her training, Mae had to learn astronomy, engineering, space shuttle systems and many other subjects that help astronauts do their jobs. She trained physically, which can be very hard on the body. Astronauts must be very strong and healthy, because being in zero gravity puts a lot of stress on the human body. Zero gravity means you are floating because there is little to no gravity in space. One of Mae’s obstacles was also a fear of heights! Do you have a fear of heights? If so, Mae can relate to you. We all have fears but this was Mae’s. She had t o overcome her fear of heights to complete parachute training, but later said there was no question that it was worth it. She either had to face her fears, or not go to space.
After training, Mae spent a few years helping with space shuttle launches at Kennedy Space Center. Then in September 1992, Mae joined six other astronauts on the space shuttle named Endeavor. Her job was a mission specialist, in some ways like her hero from the Star Trek TV show! She spent eight days in space. There, she performed experiments such as the effects of weightlessness and motion sickness on the crew.
Not only did her childhood dream come true, Mae became the first African American woman in space. She took with her reminders of people who had been excluded in the past: a portrait of Judith Jamison, a famous African American dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater; a west African statue; and a photo of Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. If you remember, we learned about Bessie Coleman in a past episode!
Mae left NASA in 1993, but is alive today and has continued to work on space-related projects. She started a camp for youth who are interested in space, and wrote a book for young people about her life. She often talks to young people who are interested in careers in space and science. She tells them to find a career they really enjoy and are good at, but also learn about lots of different subjects. Mae certainly followed her own advice by studying dance, medicine, and engineering, and then learning all about space science and shuttle systems in her astronaut training.
Mae hasn’t stopped working on big, ambitious goals for space travel either. She leads a project called 100 Year Starship. The goal of this project is to make travel to other star systems possible within the next 100 years! Isn’t that amazing! This is a huge challenge! So far we’ve only sent people as far as Earth’s moon, and unmanned probes to the other planets in our solar system. Going to another solar system would take thousands of times longer. That’s because distances in space are vast. At current rocket speeds, travel to the closest star outside our solar system would take 70 thousand years! It would be nice not to have to wait so long for something that exciting, don’t you think?
The 100 Year Starship project is exploring new technologies that could speed things up. They are also looking at ways to solve other problems that interstellar travellers would face on their trip, such as having enough food and energy, keeping people healthy, tools to fix things that break, and making sure everyone is happy and entertained!
The vastness of space has inspired us to dream about the stars since the first humans looked up at the night sky. They wondered what was out there, made up stories and watched closely to try to explain it. The unknown can be scary, but it’s also the thing that motivates us to learn and challenge ourselves to do bigger and better things. We want to know what’s out there, to make discoveries. We don’t know what we’ll find, but as Mae Jemison learned after her mission to space, we’re already a part of it. We are part of the universe, just like the stars and moon, the planets and asteroids. So it’s only natural that we want to explore it.
Many people didn’t believe Americans could get a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, a project that President John F. Kennedy proposed in 1962. But as the young Mae Jemison watched and tracked those missions from the South Side of Chicago, she and the world saw that enormous, seemingly impossible goals can be reached. They are reached by many people working together with a common purpose and vision. Mae Jemison helped show that race and gender do not matter when it comes to achieving these big goals. What matters is having passion, purpose, and determination. These are the kind of people like you who will build a better future for our world and beyond it in the stars.
Jemison, Mae. 2001. Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from my life. Scholastic Press. New York.