Despite already being a significant figure in the history of space travel, Mae Jemison is celebrating just her 64th birthday this week! Jemison is a member of a very exclusive club, having worked as a NASA astronaut for several years. Her achievements are inspirational: she was one of the first women and the very first Black woman to travel into space. To mark the occasion of her birthday this week, we look back on her career so far: her impressive career with NASA, but also her dedicated work in engineering and medicine!

Jemison was born in Decatur Alabama but grew up in Chicago. As a child she loved dance but also developed a passion for science, knowing from a young age that she wanted to study it. During her childhood, the Apollo space missions were a common occurrence on television, and while extremely exciting for the young scientist, Jemison admits she was often upset that there were no female astronauts. Her role model came instead from Star Trek, where Nichelle Nichols, who was also a Black American woman, played Lieutenant Uhura.

After graduating high school at just 16, Jemison relocated to California to study at the prestigious Stanford University and later Cornell Medical School. She graduated with a BSc in Chemical Engineering, a BA in African and African American Studies and a Doctorate of Medicine. As one of few Black students in her class, she experienced racial discrimination throughout her time at university – and yet still achieved outstanding academic success, making her intelligence and determination all the more poignant. During and after her studies she travelled the world, working in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and serving as a medical officer in Africa with the Peace Corps.

In 1983 Sally Ride became the first woman in space, an event that inspired Jemison and reignited her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. Despite the tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, Jemison bravely persisted and in 1987 she was selected for the NASA Astronaut Group 12, 1 of just 15 people chosen from over 2000 applications! After years of vigorous training, she was chosen to be a member of the Space Shuttle Endeavour crew in September 1992, spending 8 days in space and making history as the first Black woman to do so. The mission consisted of experiments in weightlessness and motion sickness on the crew and herself, while completing 127 orbits around the earth.

Jemison left NASA after serving six years as an astronaut, and has since worked with and founded several organisations that encourage the study of technology and science as well as social change. She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Medical Association Hall of Fame, and holds several awards and honorary degrees. Jemison currently lives in Texas and is once again pioneering travel in space, as she leads the 100 Year Starship project, which aims to make human space travel to another star possible within the next century!

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