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Mae C. Jemison having her spacesuit tested on Sept. 12, 1992, the day of her launch on the space shuttle Endeavor. Photo: NASAEditor’s Note: This Black History Month, Laboratory Equipment is profiling several of the most prominent scientists of African descent in an occasional series.

Mae C. Jemison reached new heights when she became the first black woman to reach space in 1992.

But the eight-day orbit around the Earth is just one accomplishment for a Renaissance woman who spent decades carving her own path in the science world as a chemical engineer, physician, researcher – and yes, astronaut.

“Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations,” wrote Jemison in her 2001 memoir, Find Where the Wind Goes.

Born in Alabama in 1956, Jemison was one of three children of a carpenter and an elementary school teacher. The family moved to Chicago when Jemison was 3 years old, to find better educational opportunities. She made the most of it – she was accepted to Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship.

Jemison succeeded, hitting all the milestones. She received a B.S. in chemical engineering from Stanford in 1977, and moved on to Cornell University Medical College, where she became an M.D. in 1981. She interned at the University of Southern California Medical Center, and became a general practitioner.

But amid all the professional development, she also cultivated a world focus. She studied in Cuba and Kenya, and also worked at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand during her student years. Shortly after becoming a full-fledged doctor, she joined the Peace Corps and became the head medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia – where she also taught and conducted some research.

Read more: Black History Month Scientists: Harold Amos

She applied to NASA for astronaut training in 1985. Although the process was delayed by the Challenger disaster in early 1986, Jemison again applied – and was chosen in June 1987. After a year of training, she was the first African-American female astronaut.

Jemison left the Earth aboard the Endeavor space shuttle with six other astronauts on Sept. 12, 1992. For eight days she conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness, as the mission STS47’s science missions specialist.

Upon landing back on Earth, Jemison was conferred honors and recognitions by many organizations – not least of which was an alternative public school in Detroit that was named the Mae C. Jemison Academy. She left NASA in 1993. According to online biographies, she taught at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002. She also founded the Jemison Group, an R&D-focused technology company, and also BioSentient Corporation.

 

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