Was William Shatner The First Star Trek Actor In Space?
William Shatner, also known as James T. Kirk, traveled to space aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard for a 10-minute suborbital flight last week. But he is not the first Star Trek actor in space. That honor lies with Mae C. Jemison, the first woman of color in space. Born October 17th, 1956 in Decatur, Alabama, she grew up loving Star Trek and was exactly the kind of woman that Nichelle Nicholls wanted to attract when she worked with NASA to do recruitment.
Her NASA biography states, “Jemison was selected for the astronaut program in June 1987. On her first flight, she was the science mission specialist on STS-47 Spacelab-J. The mission, which was a cooperative one between the U.S. and Japan, included 44 life science and materials processing experiments. Jemison was a co-investigator on the bone cell research experiment flown on the mission. In completing her first space flight, Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space.” What they don’t say is that while she was in space, Jemison began each shift by informing Mission Control in Houston that "hailing frequencies were open."
She got a chance to thank Star Trek when LeVar Burton approached her to be on the show.
"Being on Star Trek was really cool because the first thing is you don't really understand that the sets are very substantial," Jemison enthused. "I got to hang out with Worf. I got to meet Riker, and all these kinds of things. It was a very cool experience, because in many ways it was coming full circle. As a little girl, I watched Star Trek. I knew that looking at Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, someone was connecting my idea of space, and now I got to come back around and help to verify that 'yes this happened'." (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (1st ed., pp. 249-250))
She played Lieutenant junior grade Palmer, a transporter engineer who was part of the discovery of Thomas Riker. He was the transporter duplicate of Commander William T. Riker, on Nervala IV on the episode “Second Chances”, the 24th episode of season 6. This Riker had been living for 8 years on Nervala IV believing that Starfleet had thought he was dead when the distortion field interfered with the transport.
Jemison is also a classically trained dance artist as well as a medical doctor, who served as a Medical Officer in the Peace Corps. She attended Standford, starting at age 16 for chemical engineering but debated on whether to go to medical school after college or become a professional dancer her mother advised her, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.” She also had a fear of heights, which didn’t stop her from pursuing her dreams.
She now owns BioSentient Corp, a medical technology company, and started “The Earth We Share (TEWS)”, an international science camp that encourages science literacy for all.
William Shatner still gets to hold one title, that of “The Oldest Person In Space” taking this honor from the previously held Wally Funk, a Mercury 13 astronaut who qualified but never flew. Mr. Shatner looks like he had fun going boldly where only a few have gone before!