Becoming an astronaut is hard enough, but one woman overcame obstacles to become the first African American woman in space.

What You Need To Know

  • Jemison wanted to study science from an early age

  • She first studied medicine before starting a career at NASA

  • She went to space in Sept. 1992

  • After NASA, she accomplished many more things

Early life accomplishments

Born in the 1950s, Jemison would let nothing stop her from becoming one of the most accomplished African American women in history.

She was born in Decatur, Ala. but grew up in Chicago, and from a very early age, she knew she wanted to study science.

She worked hard and graduated from high school when she was just 16. At that early age, she traveled across the country to California to attend Stanford University.

Being one of the few African Americans in her class, she experienced racial discrimination from students and teachers, but that didn’t stop her from graduating with two degrees in four years, one in chemical engineering and one in African American studies.

Jemison didn’t start her career in space. She first attended Cornell Medical School, where she got her doctorate in medicine and practiced general medicine.

Her talents also didn’t stop in science. Jemison is fluent in Japanese, Russian and Swahili. She used this and her medical studies to her advantage and joined the Peace Corps in 1983 to help people in Africa for two years.

Jemison with the rest of the Endeavour Crew in 1992. (AP Photo/Chris O' Meara)

On to space

After the Peace Corps, Jemison opened her own private practice as a doctor, but not too long after, she decided she wanted to go to space, something she had wanted to accomplish for a long time.  

Jemison applied for the astronaut program at NASA in 1985. Unfortunately, NASA stopped accepting applications after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

Jemison tried her luck again in 1987 and was one of the 15 people chosen out of 2000 applicants. Nichelle Nichols, who starred as Uhura in the original Star Trek series, recruited her. Jemison later starred in an episode of the series after being a fan since childhood.

In Sept. 1992, she joined six other astronauts on the Endeavor for eight days, making her the first African American woman in space. On her mission, she made 127 orbits around the Earth.

Mae C. Jemison on board the Endeavour in 1992. (Photo by NASA)

After NASA

Jemison left NASA the year after she went to space and accomplished many more things.

She started her own consulting company, became a professor at Cornell, launched the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries, created an international space camp for teens and much more.

She currently leads 100 Year Starship through DARPA, United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which works to ensure humans will travel to another star in the next 100 years.

With all her accomplishments, it’s no surprise Jemison was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Medical Association Hall of Fame and the Texas Science Hall of Fame.

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