Last Female Space Shuttle Commander Leaves NASA
NASA Astronaut Pamela Melroy is the last-ever female space shuttle commander.
Credit: NASA

Astronaut Pamela Melroy, the last-ever female space shuttle commander, is leaving NASA?s spaceflying ranks for a new career in private industry.

Melroy is a veteran of three shuttle missions. On her third flight, the STS-120 flight of Discovery in 2007, she became the second woman to command a space shuttle - a role reserved for astronauts who have been trained as pilots, rather than mission specialists.

Despite the significance of her achievement, Melroy said the distinction wasn't a big deal for her.

"It doesn?t mean anything in particular to me because I'm certainly not going to be the last female commander of a spacecraft," Melroy, 48, told SPACE.com. She explained that female astronauts are still qualified to command the space station (which doesn't require astronauts to be pilots to command), and will likely lead missions on NASA's future spacecraft, such as Orion, being developed now.

"I'd like to see a woman command a mission to Mars," she said.

The first female shuttle pilot (and later commander) was Eileen Collins. She led the STS-93 mission in 1999, as well as the STS-114 mission in 2005, marking NASA?s first shuttle flight to follow the 2003 Columbia disaster. Since there are no pilots among the remaining 16 women in NASA's astronaut corps, there will be no chance for another woman to serve as commander of a space shuttle, as the shuttle fleet is due to be retired in 2010, or shortly thereafter.

"I've never been terribly comfortable with the idea of being a role model," Melroy said.. "But if it provides the inspiration to young women to say, 'If she can do that, then I certainly could,' I feel very fortunate to have been in a position to represent that message."

Time for a change

Melroy served as pilot on Discovery's STS-92 flight in 2000 and Atlantis's STS-112 flight in 2002. After more than 14 years at NASA - she was selected as an astronaut in 1994 - Melroy decided it was time for a change.

"It was time for me to leave the astronaut office, there was no question about that," she said. "For my personal growth and development, it was time to move on and try new things and expand my horizons a little bit."

NASA announced Melroy?s decision to retire from the astronaut corps in late July. She is moving over to Lockheed Martin to take on the post of deputy program manager for engineering in the space exploration initiative. There Melroy will oversee the contracted work on the new Orion crew exploration vehicle, which NASA plans to use to fly humans to the moon and Mars.

"I'm very much in support of the Orion design and the Orion program," Melroy said. "I think it's time for us to get out of low Earth orbit and Orion is going to take us there. We're ready to go the moon."

Melroy already has experience with the program under her belt: She has been serving as the branch chief in the NASA astronaut office for the Orion project, coordinating astronauts' input into the operation and safety design features of the spacecraft.

Despite her eagerness for the new opportunity, Melroy said leaving NASA is bittersweet.

"It's sad for a lot of different reasons," she said. "The same reason for how you felt when you graduated from college. You're sad to say goodbye, but you're very excited to start a new part of your life. That?s exactly how I feel. I've had a wonderful time and great experiences, and it's time to support other people now."

Missing astronaut life

Melroy was born in Palo Alto, Calif., and raised in Rochester, New York. She is married to Douglas Hollett.

She received her bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College, and a master's degree in earth and planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Melroy is a test pilot and veteran of operations Just Cause and Desert Shield/Desert Storm, during? which she logged more than 200 combat and combat support hours.

Though there are many aspects of being an astronaut that Melroy enjoyed, she will miss her fellow astronauts the most.

"I'll probably miss the camaraderie," she said. "That?s such a pathetic word for such a strong experience. You get really close to the people you fly in space with. The astronaut office is a family."

The feeling is mutual.

"As a classmate and a friend, I feel privileged to have served beside her," said NASA?s chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, head of the astronaut office at the agency?s Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We wish Pam the best of luck in her new career - she will be missed."

Lindsey credited Melroy?s work as commander of the STS-120 trip to the International Space Station - which delivered a vital connecting module for new laboratories - for helping to pave the way for expanded crews of six to begin serving aboard the station this summer. During that mission, Melroy served alongside fellow NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson - the first woman ever to command the space station - marking the first time two female space commanders led their respective missions at the same time.

"Pam has performed superbly as an astronaut," he said. "She has flown three highly successful space shuttle missions and contributed in several other technical areas during her 14 years of service with the astronaut office."

For Melroy, there is no one moment that will stick out among her cumulative 924 hours in space.

"There are too many to count," she said. "Each mission is totally unique in its experiences. You have tremendous highs from each and every one. I'd have to go back and say the thing that stands out is the connection with your crew. The moments of laughter, the amazing things you shared that no one else will ever understand."

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