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MIT alumna to command space shuttle mission

Pamela Melroy
Pamela Melroy

NASA recently announced that astronaut Pamela Melroy (S.M. 1984) will command the STS-120 space shuttle mission currently planned for August 2007, making her the second woman to command a U.S. space mission.

The STS-120 mission will utilize space shuttle Atlantis to deliver and assemble the Node 2 connecting module to the International Space Station.

The STS-120 flight crew has already begun its training activities. Last month, the crew spent two weeks in Alaska at the National Outdoor Leadership School. "It was a wonderful trip and a powerful training event aimed at developing leadership and improving teamwork," Melroy said in a recent interview.

Melroy became a NASA astronaut in 1994 and in 2000 became the third woman to pilot a space shuttle. She piloted a second mission in 2002 and has logged more than 23 days in space.

Melroy received her B.S. degree in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College in 1983. While at Wellesley, Melroy traveled to MIT at least once a week to participate in the Air Force ROTC program.�� She became the ROTC cadet commander during her senior year.

"My ROTC experience at MIT was the groundwork for my leadership training, starting in my freshman year," Melroy said. She was commissioned in 1984 and received her pilot wings in 1985. Melroy is currently a colonel in the Air Force.

She also did astronomy research with Wellesley Professor Richard French and MIT Professor James Elliot.�� Her master's thesis at MIT involved analysis of the atmosphere of Neptune by observing the occultation of stars by the planet.

Melroy has combat experience flying the KC-10 tanker in the Persian Gulf War and has test pilot experience supporting the development of the C-17 cargo aircraft. She has flown more than 5,000 hours in 45 different aircraft. Before she lands Atlantis on the STS-120 mission, she will have completed several hundred practice landings in the Shuttle Training Aircraft.

In one of her most challenging assignments, Melroy led the team that reconstructed the crew module of Space Shuttle Columbia following the accident that destroyed the shuttle during re-entry in 2003. "The emotional dimension was immense," Melroy said. "All of the people who worked for me were under immense emotional stress."

Melroy's STS-120 crew will begin simulator training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston once the STS-115 mission is completed. "Training for a space mission is very intense. You are essentially cutting out a part of your life and handing it to the American people as a sacrifice for flying in space ... and then the only way out of it is to actually fly in space," Melroy said.

A total of 27 MIT-trained astronauts and payload specialists have flown 63 missions into space. However, only four MIT-trained astronauts have commanded space missions.�� Melroy will become the fifth.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 27, 2006 (download PDF).

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