Spotlight on the 6 African American Women Astronauts

Spotlight on the 6 African American Women Astronauts

One way to strengthen and diversify the pipeline to employment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is to provide youth with role models. This is particularly important for members of underrepresented groups who might never personally meet successful underrepresented STEM professionals.

One place to find such role models is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has employed six African American female astronauts who can inspire future generations. Here’s what you need to know about these amazing women:

1. Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison, first African American woman in space, earned a BS in chemical engineering from Stanford University and an MD from Cornell University. Before joining NASA, Jemison served as Area Peace Corps Medical Officer for West Africa. There, she managed the health care of all Peace Corps and US Embassy employees.

Selected for the astronaut program in 1987, Jemison flew aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992. This mission took her to Spacelab-J, a collaboration between the US and Japan. She spent approximately 190 hours in space and was responsible for an experiment involving bone cells.

Since leaving NASA in 1993, Jemison has taught at Dartmouth College and Cornell University. She has also led the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s 100 Year Starship Project designed to ensure human travel to a star within 100 years. Among other honors, she has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame. 

2. Joan Higginbotham

Joan Higginbotham was part of the first mission to involve two African American astronauts. She holds a BS in chemical engineering and master’s degrees in management and in space systems. Higginbotham began working at NASA in 1987 as a payload electrical engineer. She worked on both the Space Shuttle Columbia and Space Shuttle Atlantis, helping with 53 launches.

Joan Higginbotham
Image by NASA Johnson | Flickr

Higginbotham was selected for the astronaut program in 1996 and flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006. This mission lasted approximately 12 days, and she was responsible for the Space Station Remote Manipulator System. She retired from NASA in 2007.

Since leaving NASA, Higginbotham has worked for several companies in roles involving engineering, corporate social responsibility, community relations, diversity, global sourcing, and program management. She has been awarded with two honorary doctorate degrees as well as induction into the National Association of Negro Business Hall of Fame and the Professional Women’s History Hall of Fame. Additionally, she received both the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the National Space Medal.

3. Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie Wilson is an active astronaut. She earned a BS in engineering science from Harvard University and an MS in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, where her research was supported by a NASA fellowship. After graduating, Wilson worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before being selected as an astronaut in 1996.

Stephanie Wilson
Image by NASA Johnson | Flickr

Wilson was a member of three spaceflights traveling on Space Shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS). On her 2006 mission, she was responsible for Discovery’s robotic arm and was also loadmaster, transferring 15,000 pounds of supplies and equipment. She was the 2007 mission’s flight engineer and also operated the robotic arm. Her 2010 mission again put her in charge of the robotic arm.

Wilson has spent over 42 days in space. Additionally, she has received three honorary doctorates. Among other honors and awards, she has received NASA’s Space Flight Medal and Distinguished Service Medal.

4. Yvonne Cagle

Yvonne Cagle, a management astronaut who has never flown in space, did achieve flight certification status. She earned a BA in biochemistry from San Francisco State University and an MD from the University of Washington. After graduating, she was an officer in the US Air Force and a NASA physician.

Yvonne Cagle
Image by TEDx Brussels | Flickr

Cagle was selected as an astronaut in 1996 and has served at the Johnson Space Center and the Ames Research Center. Highlights of her career include her support of the Space Shuttle Program and the ISS. During her time as an astronaut, she has been affiliated with four universities and received one honorary doctorate and one honorary university appointment.

5. Jeanette Epps

Jeanette Epps has not flown in space but is an active astronaut. She earned a BS in physics from LeMoyne College and an MS and PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland. Her graduate education was supported by a NASA fellowship.

Jeanette Epps
Image by NASA Johnson | Flickr

Before joining NASA, Epps worked at Ford Motor Company and the Central Intelligence Agency. Selected to the astronaut class of 2009, she completed training in Russian language, spacewalking, robotics, T-38 jets, geology, and outdoor leadership. She has served as Crew Support Astronaut and in mission control and received an honorary doctorate from LeMoyne College.

6. Jessica Watkins

Jessica Watkins
Image by NASA HQ PHOTO | Flickr

Jessica Watkins is the newest African American female astronaut. She has a BS in geological and environmental sciences from Stanford University and a PhD in geology from the University of California-Los Angeles, both supported by NASA Mars-focused internships. She joined the Astronaut Candidate Class of 2017 and is spaceflight eligible.