Colonel (Ret'd) Pamela Melroy: Her Story

"I'm Pam Melroy, and I'm going to be an astronaut." Pamela Melroy, age 8

Pam Melroy is a retired United States Air Force officer, NASA Astronaut, and Space Shuttle Commander.

Pam went on three Space Shuttle missions: STS-92 Discovery in 2000; STS-112 Atlantis in 2002; and STS -120 in 2007, as Mission Commander. They were all assembly missions to help build the International Space Station. Pam is one of only two women to have commanded the Space Shuttle.

Love of flying

Her father was a US Air Force officer and computer scientist. Little girls in the '60s were generally not encouraged to play with toy airplanes, but Pam was always interested in flying. She wished she could fly up into the clouds.  She would line her dolls up, hold them by the head and fly them around. She’d pretend they were magic and had dreams that they could fly.

Pamela and her father

Pam and her father

Becoming an astronaut

Pam remembers being interested in space from a young age: when she was eight, the whole family gathered to watch the first moon landing on TV and shortly after Pam told her parents she wanted to be an astronaut. She knows of a lot of young girls that were told, “Sorry. Girls can't be astronauts”, but her parents said, “Okay. Yeah, you can go be an astronaut.”  She feels the most important thing her parents always told her was that she could be anything she wanted. She watched all six moon landings over the next three years, and throughout all her schooling she was telling everyone that she was going to be an astronaut. “It was the second thing you learned about me after my name - I'm Pam Melroy, and I'm going to be an astronaut.” People would sign her high school yearbooks with “see you in space”.

Pamela Melroy's NASA helmet

This is Pam’s NASA helmet that she used when flying in the T-38. This aircraft is a supersonic jet trainer used for pilot astronauts to maintain proficiency as pilots, and also for mission specialist (scientist) astronauts to get experience working as a crewmember.

When Pam was young, astronauts were always test pilots first: a scientist or engineer experimenting with airplanes. Knowing this, Pam first went to university and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, followed by a master's in earth and planetary sciences. After this, she was accepted into the pilot program. She loved flying so it was a good fit for her. Astronauts also need good interpersonal skills and enjoy being physical and active. Pam is short and said “hauling myself up into an airplane was always a gymnastic feat.” Nowadays having a job in the space industry doesn't necessarily mean being an astronaut, as there are so many other jobs that play a part.

Pam Melroy's NASA jacket

This is Pam’s military flight jacket, with her Air Force Major rank insignia. This was her rank while flying as a test pilot

On the jacket is also her Graduate USAF Test Pilot School patch and C-17 patch. Pam was a test pilot on the initial developmental test team for the C-17 and wore this jacket when flying the first ever C-17 air show performance.

Facing gender imbalance

Pam experienced the effects of gender bias, particularly early in her career. Being one of the only women in a group could be very challenging. However, wanting to be an astronaut is a big goal, so she focused on not letting any of the nonsense get in the way. “I had a reason to put up with it and to figure out how to manage it.” She found humour and friendliness important. She built relationships, demonstrated capability, and wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty. “You just put your head down and do it because you really want it. Then all of a sudden, you're not a ‘woman pilot’; you're just Pam, and you're part of the team.” She admits she’s also pretty stubborn saying. “I think the world has changed somewhat, but not completely to a place where you don't have to be super stubborn or have some grand reason to put up with inappropriate behaviour.

Pamela Melroy smiling onsite in her job. This photo was taken when Pam Graduated as a US Air Force test pilot in 1991

Pam graduating as a US Air Force test pilot in 1991

Working with big ideas

When Pam left the astronaut office she knew that she only wanted to work on big ideas. Her choices since have been driven by that. She came to live and work part of the year in Adelaide after a call from an old friend. He said, “I think we're going to start a space agency in Australia. Would you like to come help us?”  Getting a new space industry launched is a very big idea, and Pam says it’s been an exciting project. “A career in the space industry has never been more exciting than now.”

I really love strategic, complex problems like, "How are we going to change the world?" Well, you don't change the world just by changing one thing. You have to look at it as a full system and say, "How are we going to do that?"

We don't have the words to really describe the whole experience in space. It's like no other.

Three of Pam's astronaut badges

“These badges are from Pam’s 3 missions with NASA. She has logged 924 hours in space, which adds up to over 38 days. Her missions were:

STS-92 Discovery in 2000 as pilot, STS-112 Atlantis in 2002 as pilot, and STS-120 Discovery in 2007 as Mission Commander. STS stands for “Space Transportation System” which is the official designation of the Space Shuttle.”

Advice for young women

You need to just pick something you really love, and then go off and become good at it, and demonstrate your expertise.

This Anne McCaffrey book has been in space on Space Shuttle mission STS-92. Pam loves reading and always took books to space with her. The book had to be patched up with duct tape on orbit.

This Anne McCaffrey book has been in space on Space Shuttle mission STS-92. As you'll see from the video above, Pam loves reading and always took books to space with her. The book had to be patched up with duct tape on orbit.

You can also hear:

This series is made possible with support from the Hon. Dr Diana Laidlaw AM.

Production Partner: Randy Larcombe Film + Stills

Series Partner: The University of Adelaide

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