African-American Women Astronauts Making their Mark in Space Exploration

Today’s Women’s History Month Blog was written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

All kinds of people have dreamt about flying into outer space, but only a select few are chosen to make this dream a reality. Out of this select few, a small number are women and an even a smaller number are African American. The series Mission Photographs Taken During the Space Shuttle Program, 4/12/1981 – 7/21/2011 (NAID 12562338) contains digital photographs of every space shuttle mission during its twenty year tenure. The photographs include the missions that Mae C. Jemison, Stephanie D. Wilson, and Joan E. Higginbotham were a part of. These African-American women astronauts were determined to reach the stars, and, while in the process, have inspired a new generation of space explorers.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison made her mark in space exploration history as the first African-American women to fly into space. She flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor (STS-47) as a science mission specialist in September 1992. Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She entered Stanford University at age sixteen and received her B. S. in Chemical Engineering and a B. A. in African and Afro-American Studies in 1977. She also attended Cornell Medical College and earned her Doctorate of Medicine in 1981. Before beginning her career at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1987, Jemison was a member of the Peace Corps as a medical officer in West Africa. During her first flight in space, she conducted several scientific experiments, including two-bone cell research, weightlessness, and motion sickness. Dr. Jemison resigned from NASA in 1993 to pursue a career in higher education and became an advocate for science education.

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Stephanie D. Wilson was the second African-American woman astronaut to fly into space. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and received her B. S. in engineering science from Harvard University in 1988. Wilson also received her Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1992. She joined NASA’s astronaut program in 1996, and flew on three shuttle flights as a mission specialist. Her first flight was on the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-121), the second Return to Flight mission from July 4 – 7, 2006; her second flight was aboard  Discovery (STS-120) from October 23 – November 7, 2007 and her last flight was also on Discovery (STS-131) from April 5 – 20, 2010. Wilson is still a part of NASA’s astronaut program and has received numerous awards, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal (2009 and 2011) and NASA Space Flight Medal (2006, 2007, and 2010).

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Joan E. Higginbotham is the third African-American female astronaut to fly into space. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Higginbotham received her B. S. from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 1987. She then received her Masters of Management Science (1992) and Masters in Space Science (1996) from the Florida Institute of Technology. She joined NASA in 1987 and was selected for astronaut training in 1996. She flew her first and only mission on Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-116) from December 9 – 22, 2006. Higginbotham received the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the Black Rose Award. She resigned from NASA in 2007.

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