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Dr. Mae Jemison was a girl who dreamed of the stars, and launched herself into history. In 1992, Dr. Jemison became the first Black woman to go into space. She dreamed of becoming a scientist when she was a child, and along with being an astronaut, she also worked as a doctor, professor, Peace Corps member, and CEO. Today, she continues reaching for the stars through the 100 Year Starship project, which aims to make interstellar space travel possible by 2112.
Science communicator Emily Calandrelli is the host and co-executive producer of the hit Netflix series Emily’s Wonder Lab. Each episode features Emily and a group of kid scientists as they learn about STEAM through experiments and fun activities. Emily is also an Executive Producer and Emmy nominated host of FOX’s Xploration Outer Space and was a correspondent on Netflix’s, Bill Nye Saves The World. Emily, who was named to Adweek’s “11 Celebrities and Influencers Raising the Bar for Creativity in 2017”, is also an accomplished writer and speaker on the topics of space exploration, scientific literacy, and equality.
Mae Jemison Read by Emily Calandrelli
Written by Alexis Stratton
EMILY CALANDRELLI Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed of flying through the stars. Her name is Mae.
When Mae was little, her head was full of questions: How did life on Earth start? What happened to the dinosaurs? Where do stars come from?
Whenever Mae asked her mom these things, she got the same answer: “Look it up,” her mom said.
So Mae went to the library again and again. She dove into piles of books. She invented science experiments with her older brother and sister. And she read made-up stories, too. Her favorites were ones about aliens who zoomed from one planet to another on spaceships.
It was 1961, and President Kennedy had promised to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At night, Mae stared up at the twinkling stars. She imagined ships flying between them, their rockets burning bright.
And when she closed her eyes, she saw herself, floating in space in a bulky space suit, waving down at her city—Chicago.
One day, she promised herself, she would make her dream come true.
CALANDRELLI I’m Emily Calandrelli. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Mae Jemison.
<END THEME MUSIC>
CALANDRELLI One afternoon, when Mae was sitting in her elementary school classroom, her teacher asked a question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Hands shot up around the room.
“I want to be a fireman,” “I want to be a teacher…”
Mae raised her hand into the air, her brown eyes twinkling. “I want to be a scientist!” she said.
The teacher’s eyebrows pinched together. “Don’t you mean nurse.”
Mae put her hands on her hip and “NO! I MEAN a SCIENTIST.”
In the 1960s, most scientists in the United States were men—and white. Mae was a girl, and she was Black.
But Mae didn’t care if scientists didn’t look like her. All she knew was that she wanted to explore and do experiments and study how the world worked.
She knew that was her future. No matter what her teacher—or anyone else—said….
CALANDRELLI A few years later, Mae was sitting in her family room, her eyes glued to the black-and-white images on her television screen.
It was July 20, 1969, and astronauts were about to land on the MOON.
Mae watched the moon’s surface on the screen, all the craters and dips. She held her breath until the craft finally touched down.
Mae got goosebumps as she watched Neil Armstrong’s feet gently bounce across the moon’s dusty surface.
<SOUND EFFECT “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”>
Mae thought it would be amazing to walk on the moon. Maybe by the time she was an adult, Mae could even go to Mars!
CALANDRELLI Here’s the thing…back when Mae was a child, none of the astronauts on the Apollo missions looked like her.
When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA – was created in 1958, all the astronauts were military pilots—and all of them were white men.
Still, Mae knew a different future was possible. Why? Because she saw it on Star Trek.
Star Trek was a big T.V show when Mae was a kid. On Star Trek, people of many races and genders worked together on the Starship Enterprise. They flew to new planets and met different beings from around the universe. And on the bridge of that starship stood Communication Officer Lieutenant Uhura, an important officer—and a Black woman.
Maybe one day, Mae thought, NASA would look more like Star Trek.
And when it did, she would be ready to fly.
CALANDRELLI At just 16 years old, Mae graduated high school at the top of her class. She received a National Achievement Scholarship that paid for college and left Chicago for California where she started at Stanford University. There, she studied chemical engineering and African American studies. She also learned a bunch of languages, performed in theater productions, and was a dancer.
When Mae graduated in 1977, she still wanted to fly among the stars—but first, she was determined to help people on her own planet.
So, Mae studied medicine and traveled around the world helping people in Cuba, Kenya, and Thailand. She provided medical care in small villages and in refugee camps.
Then, after graduating from medical school, Mae joined the Peace Corps, a program of the U.S. government that sends volunteers to developing countries around the world. It was hard work, and she was on-call all the time. She learned so much about health, wellness and how to treat patients. And then, in 1985, Mae returned to the U.S.
It was time to explore a NEW frontier—space.
CALANDRELLI By that time, NASA’s astronauts looked different than they did in 1969. In 1983, Guion Bluford made history as the first Black astronaut, and that same year, Sally Ride was the first American woman to enter space.
So, Mae called the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
“I would like an application to be an astronaut,” she said.
To her surprise, they sent her one immediately. She filled it out, mailed it in, and waited – taking some engineering courses while she did.
But then, something terrible happened.
On a freezing winter morning in late January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched into the bright, blue Florida sky.
Suddenly, the Challenger exploded.
People watching live and on TV gasped and covered their eyes.
After that, NASA suspended the space shuttle project.
CALANDRELLI Mae’s heart hurt for the astronauts who lost their lives on the Challenger. And Mae knew there were risks involved in any kind of exploration—but there was also so much to learn and discover.
So, when NASA reopened their astronaut training program in October 1986, Mae applied again.
In 1987, out of 2,000 applicants—and after many interviews and tests—Mae was one of fifteen people chosen for NASA’s astronaut training program!
CALANDRELLI For a whole year Mae trained with the other astronauts-to-be. They took classes on science, technology and about how the space shuttle itself worked. They learned how to operate all the equipment. They were even trained on how to survive in the wilderness, fly in jets, and operate a parachute.
One of the most interesting parts of their training was learning to live in zero gravity.
On Earth, gravity holds people’s feet to the ground, but in space, there is no gravity. Astronauts float!
As part of Mae’s training, she flew in a plane that recreated zero gravity conditions by flying up and down in a special looping pattern. As Mae floated weightless in the air for 30 seconds at a time, she had to figure out how to work the shuttle’s equipment and even practice eating!
Finally, in 1988, Mae completed the program.
She was now the first Black woman to ever be an astronaut!
CALANDRELLI On September 12, 1992, Mae stepped into her bright orange space suit and walked proudly onto Launchpad 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center. The space shuttle Endeavor stood like a tower, its nose pointed straight up toward the sky.
Mae and six other astronauts boarded the shuttle and got strapped in. As the countdown began, Mae’s heart raced.
<SOUND EFFECT: “Ten, nine, eight…”>
CALANDRELLI Butterflies filled Mae’s belly.
<SOUND EFFECT: “Seven, six, five, four…”>
CALANDRELLI A huge grin grew across her face.
<SOUND EFFECT: “Three, two, one—and we have LIFT OFF!”>
CALANDRELLI As the shuttle’s rockets roared to life, Mae’s seat shuddered beneath her. Her body pressed back as the shuttle shot into the sky.
Up, up, and up they flew! Through the clouds and the bright sunny sky, and then, finally—finally, Mae was in space.
When the Endeavor entered orbit above the Earth, Mae’s eyes widened in amazement. The planet was glowing, and beautiful, and blue.
Mae remembered looking out her own window as a child, staring up at the twinkling stars. Now here she was, looking back down at her hometown.
“What would my younger self have thought if she had met me?” Mae wondered. “I think she would have been tickled.”
As Mae watched the Earth spin by below, she couldn’t stop smiling if she tried.
CALANDRELLI Mae traveled around the Earth in the Endeavor for 3.3 million miles—or 126 orbits. As the Endeavor soared around the planet, Mae’s spirits did, too.
On board the shuttle, Mae couldn’t help but think of Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek. On one of her first shifts, Mae broke with NASA protocol and radioed down to Earth, “Huntsville, Endeavor, all hailing frequencies open”—just like Lieutenant Uhura used to say.
But Mae also had a job to do. She and her crewmates conducted more than 44 experiments. They hatched frogs’ eggs and studied what happened to them at zero gravity. (They grew well and lived.) They observed the behavior of hornets and examined whether they built nests. (They didn’t.)
And Mae even did an experiment on herself. Zero gravity often causes uncomfortable side effects, including nausea. So Mae hooked herself up to special equipment and studied whether meditation and other similar activities helped her feel better. (They did!)
CALANDRELLI Eight days after its launch, the Endeavor headed back to the Kennedy Space Center.
<SOUND EFFECT: “Endeavor, Houston, looking good on final,” a voice said over the comm system. “You’re still go, surface winds are calm.”>
The Endeavor’s wheels gently touched the runway’s asphalt. A big red-and-white chute deployed behind the shuttle as it slowed to a stop.
<SOUND EFFECT: “Endeavor, congratulations on a highly successful and historic mission.”>
CALANDRELLI In their blue NASA uniforms, Dr. Mae Jemison and the six other astronauts stepped out into the bright sun, smiling and waving.
Back in Chicago, Mae was greeted with parades and celebrations. She made special appearances on television, and she gave speeches around the country.
Her dream—and the dreams of many before her—had finally come true.
CALANDRELLI In the years following her space flight, Mae left NASA for other endeavors. She taught at Dartmouth and Cornell Universities, started her own science and technology company, and launched a science education program for kids. She even appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation! A spin-off of the very show that inspired her when she was a girl!
She never stopped reaching for the stars.
Mae is now leading an innovative project called the 100 Year Starship. This project aims to create the technology and resources we need to send humans to another star system, light years away, in the next 100 years.
With collaboration and hard work, Mae believes we can make this impossible dream possible.
For her. For you. For everyone.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger.
This episode was produced by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. Sound design and mixing by Luis Miranda. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager.
This episode was written by Alexis Stratton. Proofread by Ariana Rosas. It was narrated by Emily Calandrelli, who we will get to know better on Thursday’s episode!
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. For more, visit Rebelgirls.com. If you liked this episode, please rate the show and tell your friends to listen.
Until next time, stay rebel!