Hailing Frequencies Open

To a child born in 1956, the Apollo missions to the moon transpired during a formative period. Teenagers across the United States watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prance across our grey satellite, many dreaming of one day leaving their footprints on an alien world.

Though the monumental achievements of the space program likely awed every human, a girl or any non-white child born in 1956 probably noticed something about the men of Apollo: they looked nothing like them. No women, no persons of color. Role models are important. If a child of the 1960s dreamed of visiting space someday, the people they watched going there might not particularly inspire much hope of emulation.

Fortunately, for one girl born on 17 October 1956, another role model existed to light the flames of spacefaring potential. This role model had not orbited Earth or flown to the moon. Instead, this role model had boldly gone where no man or woman had gone before.

Uhura holds a clipboard on Star Trek
Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura in Star Trek

The child was Mae Jemison and the role model was Nichelle Nichols, who played a character named Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek. The OG series premiered in September 1966, just months before the tragedy of Apollo 1 and less than three years before humanity’s first trek to the moon. To children like Jemison, born in Alabama and raised in Chicago, whose paternal ancestors had been enslaved on a plantation, suddenly they had someone on the silver screen that looked familiar. And this person was traipsing around the cosmos.

When Jemison became the first Black woman in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, she opened every shift with a quip to ground control: “Hailing frequencies open.” The greeting, of course, was specifically chosen, as it was the catchphrase of Uhura on Star Trek.

Role models matter.

Mae Jemison stands in an orange space suit, holding a helmet.
Mae Jemison - photo by NASA

The daughter of an English and math teacher, the precocious space lover went to Stanford at age 16. In addition to a fascination with science, she excelled at dance, studying ballet, jazz, modern, African, and Japanese styles. At Stanford, she received degrees in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies. She was so accomplished at dance, however, that a legitimate decision arose: go to medical school or pursue professional dancing?

Cornell Medical School was the initial conclusion, though Jemison continued to pursue dancing studies and performances. In 1981, she became M.D. Jemison, interned at USC, and became a general practitioner in Los Angeles. In 1983, she joined the Peace Corps, serving as a medical officer in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Later, she worked at the Centers for Disease Control on vaccine research.

After her time in the Peace Corps, she resumed private practice and started taking graduate courses in engineering. Encouraged by Sally Ride and Guion Bluford, who, in 1983, became the first American woman and the first Black American in space, Jemison applied to the astronaut program in 1985. The Challenger tragedy delayed her dreams temporarily, but NASA selected Jemison in the class of 1987.

As a Science Mission Specialist, she joined the crew of STS-47. In September 1992, Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted into orbit.

Mae Jemison works on electronics.
Jemison at the Kennedy Space Center in 1992 - NASA
Mae Jemison looks out of the Space Shuttle at Earth.
Jemison with a privileged view - NASA

During her eight days in orbit, Jemison performed experiments on biofeedback, motion sickness, producing saline in space, bone cells, and the ovulation and fertilization of frogs in low gravity.

STS-47 was Jemison’s only flight away from the planet, as she decided to leave NASA in 1993. For most people, her first four decades would constitute a full, historic life, but Jemison was just getting started.

She began foundations that ran science camps for teenagers. She taught environmental studies at Dartmouth for seven years. Jemison was named an Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell. She’s a member of the American Medical Association, the American Chemical Society, the Association of Space Explorers, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2012, one of her foundations won a grant from DARPA to head the 100 Year Starship project, an undertaking “to take the first step in the next era of space exploration—a journey between the stars.” The project aimed to lay out all the things humanity would need to organize, build, and scheme to send people to another star system, a journey intended to start within the next 100 years.

She penned a memoir aimed at children, Find Where the Wind Goes, in addition to a series called A True Book, which aims to challenge youngsters to answer questions about physics and astronomy correctly at the end of stories.

Mae Jemison in 2013 - photo by Oregon State University

Her exploits led to pop-culture celebrity, too. In 2017, LEGO included her in the “Women of NASA” set.

The full-circle moment arrived more than two decades earlier, however. LeVar Burton, of Reading Rainbow fame, appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation between 1987 and 1994. When he learned of Jemison’s love of Star Trek and Nichelle Nichols, he asked if she would be interested in being on the show. In 1993, on an episode called “Second Chances,” Jemison became the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek!

With a career as varied and successful as Jemison’s, the awards are nearly as numerous as the stars.

In 1993, the National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her. The International Space Hall of Fame added her in 2004. The National Audubon Society bestowed Jemison with the Rachel Carson Award in 2005. She nabbed the 2017 Buzz Aldrin Space Pioneer Award.

Elementary, Middle, and High Schools in Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, and Alabama bear her name. The Mae C. Jemison Science and Space Museum resides at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago.

Mae Jemison's LEGO figurine
Jemison's LEGO figurine

Nyota Uhura would have been especially proud of Mae Jemison for a life well lived. Nichelle Nichols, with whom Jemison formed a friendship, certainly was.

This astronautical pioneer, selfless medical practitioner, advocate for science, dance enthusiast, and grand cosmic thinker is beyond qualified for the Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame at The Mountains Are Calling. We hail her induction on all frequencies.

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