‘”What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Fifteen hands rose quickly into the air. In 1961, in McCosh elementary school off 65th Street in inner-city Chicago, a little girl called Mae Jemison was sat at the back, looking at the pictures on the walls and thinking. Her hand hovered for a second, then rose up, and waved out of the crowd. The teacher caught her eye and nodded.
Mae stood up to speak, crumpling the skirt of her dress in her fist. “I want to be a scientist.”
Her teacher looked surprised. “Don’t you mean a nurse?”
“No,” Mae replied, “I mean a scientist.”’
Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from my Life, Mae Jemison
Sixteen years later, after receiving her Chemical Engineering degree from Stanford University, Mae Jemison confessed to an acquaintance that she wanted to become an astronaut.
He laughed, and looked up at her. ‘Give me a break.’
Mae Jemison, the first woman of colour ever to go to space, has continued to defy as many expectations as she elicits.
Mae was born in Decatur, ‘The River City’, in Alabama. She moved up to Chicago when she was a toddler so that her mother, who had completed two years of college, could find work other than house cleaning. She was audacious even as a child, spending the days on the streets of Chicago with her brother and sister. When she was a small child she managed to jump into the front seat of her father’s parked Buick and pull it into drive, keeping control of the car just long enough to crash it.
In 1968, trying to reassert control after the riots that tore through the city in the wake of the murder of Martin Luther King, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley sent the National Guard out onto the streets. In her autobiography, Finding Where the Wind Goes, Mae Jemison describes watching them through the screen door, as hot summer air crept past her into the house. Watching them walk her street in procession, with loaded guns held in front of them, Mae says she ‘knew as a ten-year-old-girl I was not precious to these adults. I believed they would kill me as readily as they would kill the Vietnamese.’ After that afternoon crouched urgently by the door, she promised she would never allow herself to be as afraid again.
She quickly grew talldf and irrepressibly intelligent. She fell in love with science fiction, despite the blatant non-representation of people of colour in her favourite authors, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. She identified with them as others who understood her love of science: ‘The mystery was as important and inescapable to me as it was to them. That mystery was unifying.’
At sixteen she was accepted to Stanford University, where she studied Chemical Engineering as her major, as well as Political Science, Languages and Computer Programming. Despite facing what was at times open discrimination from her professors, she was massively successful at her course. In her autobiography she describes the value of her self-conviction, built by ‘falling down and getting up and knowing I was worthwhile, just because I was me.’ After she gained her degree, she moved to New York and studied medicine at Cornell University, then worked for Peace Corps as an Area Medical Officer in Sierra Leone.
Once she returned to the United States in 1986, she got a job as a doctor in Los Angeles and applied to NASA to work as an astronaut. Years earlier, she had upset adults around her by defiantly declaring that anyone who tried to claim that women could and should not work as astronauts was nonsensical.’ Now she had applied, along with two thousand others, willing to disprove that theory herself.
On the day she heard she had been accepted to the astronaut programme, Mae finished her day at work, went to an aerobics class, stayed up until late watching reruns of Start Trek and started to pack to move to Houston.
Jemison flew from September 12th to 20th, 1992, as a Mission Specialist on flight STS-47, spending 190 hours in space, and conducting short experiments in fluid dynamics and transport phenomena.
Reflecting on her flight in her autobiography, Jemison writes: ‘When I sat in the space shuttle waiting for launch, an incredible, huge grin came across my face.
‘I grinned for that girl walking down Monterey Avenue on a cold Chicago winter evening, astronomy and adventure books tucked under her arm.’
Article and illustration by April Bates