African American Transportation History: Joan Higginbotham, Astronaut

In December 2006, Joan Higginbotham became the third African American woman to fly into outer space. The first African American woman to do so was Mae Jemison, who made her pioneering flight in 1992. About five months before Higginbotham’s spaceflight, Stephanie Diana Wilson became the second African American woman to journey into space when she served as a mission specialist on board Space Shuttle Discovery for its STS-121 expedition to and from the International Space Station (ISS).   

Higginbotham was born in Chicago in 1964. After graduating from Whitney Young Magnet High School in the Windy City in 1982, she attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC). Higginbotham graduated from there in 1987 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. She also attended the Florida Institute of Technology, where she earned a master of science (M.S.) in management in 1992 and an M.S. in space systems in 1996.

Just a couple of weeks after she had graduated from SIUC in 1987, Higginbotham began her career at NASA. She first worked at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as a payload electrical engineer in the electrical and telecommunications systems division. In 1996, Higginbotham was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate.

For her only spaceflight, Higginbotham was a mission specialist on board Discovery for the STS-116 expedition to ISS. This mission began with the launch of Discovery from KSC on December 9, 2006. “It was a tremendous ride,” Higginbotham recalled in an interview with Florida Today. “I thought it was incredibly smooth.” She also noted in that newspaper interview,” There were flashes of red and yellow and the colors were very vibrant. It was like a big laser show — pretty incredible.” Higginbotham logged more than 308 hours in space during that mission, which ended with the return of Discovery to KSC on December 22.

Higginbotham, who retired from NASA the following year to pursue a career in the private sector, has been the recipient of several awards. These include the NASA Exceptional Service Medal: a KSC Public Affairs Certificate of Appreciation for Service; and the League of Black Women’s Black Rose Award.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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