Alumna Pamela Melroy, who earned the SM in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences in 1984, became the first woman MIT graduate to pilot a US spacecraft with the successful launch of the 100th space shuttle mission on October 11. Only two other women have ever piloted an American spacecraft.
An onboard video camera captured the scene as Discovery's commander, Brian Duffy, reached over and shook hands with Ms. Melroy three and a half minutes into the flight, at the point when the shuttle soared past the 50-mile-altitude mark, the officially recognized requirement for earning astronaut wings.
Discovery docked with the International Space Station on October 13, delivering two major space station components, the Z-1 truss assembly and the pressurized mating adapter. This mission paves the way for the first crew to live aboard the space station, currently scheduled for departure on October 30 commanded by William Shepherd, who earned the SM from MIT in 1978 (MIT Tech Talk, September 13, 2000).
"Being a part of the American space program and building the new International Space Station for me means being a part of a dream for our future, and for our children's future," said Ms. Melroy in a pre-flight interview.
She earned a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College in 1983, while participating in the Air Force ROTC program at MIT. The 39-year-old pilot is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force and served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. She became a test pilot and has over 4,000 hours of flight time in more than 45 different aircraft. She was selected as an astronaut in December 1994 and spent three years in training for her first spaceflight.
"It's hard to see yourself as a role model," said Ms. Melroy. " I'm just an ordinary person with a very unusual job. But I'd like to think that, if nothing else, people could look at me and say, 'Hey, she's an ordinary person. And she can do this extraordinary job. Maybe I could, too.' And if I could possibly inspire girls to think that, that would make me really happy."
Tamra Haby, a senior in aeronautics and astronautics from Texas with an interest in space exploration, finds Ms. Melroy's achievement -- and humility -- inspirational.
"That she is still that humble is inspiring in itself, and it makes you stop to realize what's important in working towards doing something amazing like becoming an astronaut," said Ms. Haby. "It's not about seeing yourself as being better than others, it's about taking advantage of opportunities and doing fantastic things that others will benefit from, whether it be the science performed on the mission or the inspiration it provides to girls and young women.
"I remember always being interested and intrigued by the idea of people going to space, and I read a book about the Challenger after the accident, even though I was only in first grade," said Ms. Haby. "I also remember hearing about Sally Ride. At that time, it seemed natural to me that a woman would be an astronaut, because I was too young and innocent to know that women have historically been at a disadvantage for science and technical jobs.
"I chose aerospace engineering because I want to play a role in the future of space exploration and utilization, and I knew that MIT would be the first major stepping stone to do that," Ms. Haby said.
MIT has produced 31 NASA astronauts, more than any other private educational institution. The closest private educational institutions to MIT are Purdue University with 20 and Stanford University with 18. Only three military schools, the US Air Force Academy, the US Naval Academy and the US Naval Postgraduate School, have had more graduates selected as NASA astronauts.
Five women astronauts hold degrees from MIT: Janice Voss (SM in electrical engineering and PhD in aeronautics and astronautics), Wendy Lawrence (SM in ocean engineering), Catherine Coleman (SB in chemistry), Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper (SB and SM in mechanical engineering) and Ms. Melroy.
The two other American women to pilot a spacecraft are Eileen Collins and Susan Still Kilrain.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 18, 2000.