On September 8th, 1966, Americans were first introduced to the crew of the Starship Enterprise, led by Captain Kirk. In the 50 years since, the series has made an indelible mark on the world, and on American culture. It also has inspired thousands of men and women to pursue careers in science, including doctor and astronaut Mae Jemison.
Jemison was about to turn ten on that day in 1966, and she spent her childhood in Chicago enjoying hobbies that were both scientific and arts focused. In kindergarten, she told her teachers she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up, but she also began dancing at age 11 and thought she might become a professional dancer. She began at Stanford University at the age of 16, and as she reached her senior year she was debating if she should pursue dance or medicine as a career. She credits her mother with helping her decide, and she earned her medical degree from Cornell in 1981. But she didn’t give up dancing, taking classes at the Alvin Ailey School at the same time.
Jemison has said that she assumed that space travel would be common by the time she grew up, and always knew she would go. She was “irritated” at the lack of women astronauts at the time, but saw that Sally Ride’s historic flight in 1983 opened up more opportunities. Inspired by the image of Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura serving aboard the Enterprise, Jemison applied to NASA and was accepted in 1987.
Jemison flew aboard the shuttle Endeavor as a mission specialist on STS-47, the 50th space shuttle mission, in September of 1992. Twenty-six years after the world first met Lt. Uhura, Jemison paid tribute to the character and the series by beginning each shift with the words “hailing frequencies open.” Jemison was also the first African-American woman in space.
In 1993, Jemison also became the first astronaut to appear on a Star Trek series when she was a guest star on Star Trek: The Next Generation, helping to inspire even more young women to look to the stars.
Written by Mary Ratliff