A Look Back in History: Mae Jemison — Breaking New Ground in Space

Mae C. Jemison was born on Oct. 17, 1956, in Decatur, Alabama. At an early age, Jemison developed interests in anthropology, archaeology and astronomy.

She graduated from Morgan Park High School in 1973 as an honor student and entered Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1977. Jemison went on to earn a doctorate degree in medicine from Cornell University in 1981. On June 4, 1987, she became the first African-American woman to be admitted into the astronaut training program.

Jemison went into space on Sept. 12, 1992, with six other astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. This was the first time an African-American woman had gone into space. She served as the science mission specialist in Spacelab-J from Sept. 12-20. Jemison was a co-investigator on the bone cell research experiment flown on the mission. She ended up logging 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space.

In recognition of her accomplishments, Jemison received several honorary doctorates, the 1988 Essence Science and Technology Award, the Ebony Black Achievement Award in 1992 and a Montgomery Fellowship from Dartmouth College in 1993. She was also Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year in 1990. In 1992, an alternative public school in Detroit, called the Mae C. Jemison Academy, was named after her.

A Look Back in History: Guion S. Bluford — The First African-American Man in Space

Guion S. Bluford was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 22, 1942. He became the first African-American to travel into space on Aug. 30, 1983. He served as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Bluford has multiple degrees in science and engineering. They include a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 1964, a master’s with distinction in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1974 and a Ph.D.

In 1993, Bluford left the Air Force and NASA. Four years later, he was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame. On June 5, 2010, he was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Bluford led the way for many Black men and women to journey into space. Astronauts Ronald McNair, Charles F. Bolden Jr. and Frederick D. Gregory gained leadership roles on their missions. Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space. Other astronauts benefitting from Bluford’s legacy include Bernard A. Harris Jr., Winston E. Scott, Robert Curbeam, Michael P. Anderson, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, B. Alvin Drew, Leland D. Melvin and Robert Satcher.

‘Cosmos’ and ‘Wormhole’: Black Men Taking Over Pop Culture Science

We are reminded repeatedly that to inspire children to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they need to see people who look like them in those fields. Every kid needs a role model and until very recently, there weren’t many images of famous Black Americans in STEM. How many teenagers these days know who Geordi LaForge is, much less Mae Jemison? But they need those images if they’ll ever believe that they can become great scientists too.

Enter: Pop Culture.

Fox network and the Science Channel have done what no one else has: they’ve put Black men at the forefront of America’s new scientific curiosity. With the documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and Through the Wormhole,  television is doing for science what Reading Rainbow did for reading: it’s showing children (and adults) that scientific exploration is not just a white man’s game.

Who are these Black men, you ask? Well, you probably didn’t ask because they’re everywhere. But just in case you don’t own a television, a radio, aren’t on Twitter, have never heard of the Internet and don’t listen to podcasts- the host of Cosmos is satirist Jon Stewart’s favorite astrophysicist- Neil deGrasse Tyson. And the host of Wormhole? Academy-Award winning actor Morgan Freeman. Because the story of the universe should pretty much only be narrated by Morgan Freeman.

If you’ve never seen these shows (they’re on Hulu and Netflix so there’s really no excuse), Cosmos is a revival of the popular 1980s show hosted by Carl Sagan. Now hosted by Tyson, Cosmos explores the workings of the universe and the people who discovered exactly what’s going on in this world of ours. Cosmos is beautifully produced, engaging, and the fact that Tyson is so very in love with science encourages the viewer to fall in love with it too. Nominated for 12 Emmys, Cosmos’ global warming episode tied The Bachelorette in ratings. A show about science tying a reality show? Incredible.

Also Emmy nominated, Through the Wormhole covers everything from whether zombies really exist (spoiler alert: yes), to whether or not time travel is possible (non-spoiler alert: I really, really, really hope so). Freeman is completely engaging in this show, not just because of who he is – Morgan Freeman –  but because of what he’s not, a scientist.

Like our children, he’s just a guy who thinks the world is awesome and wants to find out more about it. Now in its fifth season, Through the Wormhole answers the questions we’ve always wondered about and confirms some things we were pretty sure about – see zombie comment above.

It’s an extraordinary thing to have two Black men hosting the two most popular science TV shows of our time, and even more extraordinary that one is a scientist, and the other is one of the most famous actors of the century. Such different men prove that no matter what our children become, or where they come from, nothing is more important than an education.

As Tyson said in Mother Jones earlier this year, “Science is trending in our culture, and if science is trending, that can only be good for the health, the wealth, and the security of our species, of our civilization.” And if a more diverse cast of characters are leading the trend? That can only be good for the hearts and minds of our children.

In hip-hop artist Talib Kweli’s best song (don’t argue, that’s scientific), he says:

“The TV got us reaching for stars

Not the ones between Venus and Mars

The ones that be reading for parts.”

After all of these years, “the TV” is showing us a wide universe of possibility. Are your children watching?

Kat Calvin is a social entrepreneur, writer and advocate for the empowerment of women, entrepreneurs and the black community. She is the founder of Michelle in Training, a mentoring and educational organization. You can follow her at @KatCalvinDC.