This week, in celebration of Black History Month and World Space Week, Years 8 and 9 were treated to an assembly following the lives of two black women who were first in their field. Mary Jackson who was the first black woman to work as an engineer at NASA and Mae Jemison who was the first black woman to become an astronaut and go to space.
Their resilience in overcoming the obstacles in their paths to these achievements is inspirational. They show us that ‘nobody has ever done it’, is not a good argument as to why you should not try.
Mary Winston Jackson graduated in 1942 with a dual degree in Maths and Physical Sciences. After several career changes it was suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. The problem was that trainees had to take graduate level Maths and Physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia. Because the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School however, Mary needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom. Never one to flinch in the face of a challenge, Mary completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer.
Mary began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity; in the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. NASA have now named a building in her honour.
Mae Carol Jemison was born in1956 in Decatur, Alabama. She entered Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship and received a degree in Chemical Engineering from the university. She then entered Cornell University Medical College and, during her years there, found time to expand her horizons by studying in Cuba and Kenya and working at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. Following her return to the United States in 1985, Jemison made a career change and decided to follow a dream she had nurtured for a long time. She applied for admission to NASA’s astronaut training programme and was one of the 15 candidates chosen from a field of about 2,000.
On 4 June 1987, Jemison became the first African-American woman to be admitted into the NASA astronaut training program. After more than a year of training, she became the first African-American woman astronaut.
When Jemison finally flew into space on 12 September 1992, she became the first African-American woman in space. Following her historic flight, Jemison noted that society should recognise how much both women and members of other minority groups can contribute if given the opportunity. Stats from 2020 showed that just six black women have launched into space since; of the 350 astronauts in NASA’s 61 year history — a fact that Jemison has expressed frustration about.
NASA has stated that its current lunar exploration program plans to land the first woman on the moon in 2024 and, eventually, Mars. In the most recent astronaut graduate class, there are 11 NASA astronauts and two Canadian Space Agency astronauts. Six of them are women and two are women of colour: Jessica Watkins, a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology who identifies as African-American, and Jasmin Moghbeli, a U.S. Marine Corps major whose parents are from Iran. With these stats, there’s a chance the next person on the moon could be a woman of colour. And that would be progress.