September 1992, Shuttle Endeavour
Floating in microgravity—with the grace of a ballerina, in a baggy blue jumpsuit—Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, anesthetizes four female South African clawed frogs. She injects them with hCG to stimulate ovulation and leaves them in the privacy of a quiet tank to lay their eggs. She must first kill the males, then inject fluid from their testes onto the eggs—no romance here in space. Tadpole astronauts born four days later develop normally, the NASA scientists will conclude, with slightly smaller lungs.
At the porthole, Mae looks down three hundred kilometers at the southside of Chicago, where, as a girl, she played Barbies, took ballet, and watched Star Trek in the late sixties. She climbs into a lower-body negative-pressure apparatus, which pulls her blood back down toward her feet, a five-hour-experiment that imitates the pull of Earth.
1977 NASA recruitment video
“Strong inference on subspace, Captain,” Lieutenant Uhura says at her twenty-third-century comm panel. “The planet must be a natural radio source.” And then it’s the 1970s, and actress Nichelle Nichols, in a blue jumpsuit and carefully teased hair, sits at the console of a bulky computer, waving a number two pencil. “The space shuttle is built to make regularly scheduled runs into space and back, just like a commercial airline,” she tells us. Astronaut Alan Bean gives her a personal tour of Johnson Space Center, helps her into a lower-body pressure device to check her heart under stress. “The Enterprise was never like this,” she quips.
Nichelle Nichols has a history with the stars: she studied at the Chicago Ballet Company, toured with Duke Ellington, appeared in a James Baldwin play in Los Angeles, was friends with Maya Angelou. She wanted to quit Star Trek after learning the network had been purposefully holding back her fan mail, but Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her to stay. “For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen,” he told her.
And a history with the astral, too: her brother Thomas fatally believed the dogma of Heaven’s Gate, that he could evolve past humanity, ascend to a ship hidden in a comet’s wake. She was there when the space shuttle prototype, Enterprise, rolled out to fanfare. At age 84, she flew into the lower atmosphere with a telescope built into a 747. An asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter is named for her:
—because Nichelle changed the face of the astronaut corps. “The Shuttle will be taking scientists and engineers, men and women of all races, into space, just like the astronaut crew on the starship Enterprise…This is your NASA,” she tells “minorities and women alike.” Soon, Sally Ride applies, and the first Black astronauts, and the first Asian American, and four of the astronauts later assigned to the 1986 Challenger flight. Then in 1985, as soon as she qualifies, a young physician and chemical engineer, Mae Jemison.
May 1993; “Second Acts,” Star Trek: The Next Generation
The junior transport technician in black-and-citrine uniform studies the readings on her touchscreen console. “Phase distortion is dropping. The next transport window opens in forty-two seconds.” It’s guest star Dr. Mae Jemison, her hair close-cropped as it was in space. Most of the episode centers on a man having an argument with himself, doubled in a transporter malfunction. The faux stars out the window do not move or twinkle, but atmospheric rivers eddy on the planet below. Nichelle Nichols, catalyst for the gig, waits offstage. Mae has morphed: from audience, to astronaut, to actress:
—to arrested. In February, 1996, the first Black woman in space is pulled over in Nassau Bay, Texas, for an illegal turn. The officer tells her she’s under arrest for a speeding ticket she thought she paid years ago. In frustration, she throws her keys to the ground. But the officer is already handcuffing her as she leans over to pick them up. He “grabs her left hand, knocking her wallet and paper out of it, twists her wrist and throws her arms up behind her back,” as her lawyer will later describe it. She’s forced down, grit against her cheek, then concrete coarse under her bare feet as he muscles her to the patrol car, the materials of earth keeping her grounded. She’ll be held two hours until she posts bail. It’s like the plot of a one-hour sci-fi show, if the police were aliens on an off-kilter planet—except that an investigation will clear the officer, and the plot seems almost like a cliché, repeated ad infinitum. If she were back on the show, they’d fire the interstellar engines, steer the ship far away, toward some more welcoming galaxy.
May 2018, Mae Jemison on Good Morning America
“I want you to do something for me. I want you to go outside and look up.
Because you’re looking into space and infinity. When you’re up above the Earth’s atmosphere, there’s a little less light pollution, and so you see the stars more abundantly.
But remember, right now we’re on a spaceship.”
In a citrine jacket, bright pop of color in the darkness of the television studio, Mae looks into the hulking camera apparatus, speaking directly to the girl who asked, “What is it like to be looking at the universe, knowing it never ends?” When the next video autoplays, she’s twenty-six years younger, floating in the brightly-lit SpaceLab, tethered to a wall by a wire, another life-science experiment that will help future astronauts survive the damaging effects of space.
Lisa Ampleman is the author of two books of poetry, most recently Romances (LSU Press, 2020), and a chapbook. Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in journals such as 32 Poems, Colorado Review, Ecotone, Image, and Southern Review. She is the managing editor of The Cincinnati Review and poetry series editor at Acre Books.