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When Pam Melroy Was Born, Women Astronauts Didn’t Exist. She Still Became One.

“When I was a little girl, and I decided I was going to be an astronaut, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to command a spacecraft someday,” said Pam Melroy. “I was absolutely sure that I was going to be an astronaut, and that I was going to be in charge. Some people might say I was a little bossy.”

Melroy did just that, boldly going where few women have gone before to become one of approximately 60 women to have flown in space over the last 50 years and one of only two women to have ever commanded the space shuttle.

“I was born into a world before women astronauts,” Melroy wrote in the Guardian last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the flight of Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. Melroy was born in 1961, two years before Tereshkova’s historic trip, and at a time when NASA was openly rejecting women astronaut candidates. John Glenn testified before Congress that women could not qualify as astronauts and, because NASA at the time required candidates to have engineering degrees and have completed military jet test programs (which were closed to women until 1978), he was right.

It would be another 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman to shatter the thermospheric ceiling.

“It is never fun to be the first of a minority to do something because the reputation of everyone who comes after you depends on how well you do,” Melroy said of Ride. “Sally smoothed the path for all women because she was good at what she did, and she earned the respect of her peers for all women.”

Whitson and Melroy hugging

Peggy Whitson embraces Pam Melroy (right) as Melroy and her crew enter the International Space Station.

Melroy, of course, is also very good at her job — and incidentally has completed military jet test programs and has degrees in physics and earth sciences. Before joining NASA, she blazed another path through the heavily male-dominated Air Force, serving as a fighter and test pilot, and she now spends her time as the deputy director of the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. All told, she’s spent 6,924 hours (about 288 days) above Earth.

“Young women of today can’t imagine a time when women couldn’t be astronauts, and I’m just fine with that,” said Melroy. But there are plenty of dreams that still seem impossible to achieve, and on June 5, Melroy will offer her tips on channeling your inner headstrong little girl and following her dreams, no matter how crazy they might sound.

By:    February 05, 2014