An interview with Pamela Melroy, a retired astronaut dedicated to space exploration

An interview with Pamela Melroy, a retired astronaut dedicated to space exploration
Pamela Melroy, on her decision to become an astronaut as a child.

In the bowels of retired aircraft carrier Intrepid, Pamela Melroy wrapped up her discussion by asking the multi-generational audience who wanted to be an astronaut. Arms shot up throughout the packed theater, and as expected, the majority of those hands were young ones. What I was surprised to see, and was an entirely different response than any other astronaut discussion I’ve ever attended, was the inspired excitement of so many adults raising their hands as high as they could.

What Melroy shared with this audience, how the experiences she had as a test pilot and shuttle commander with NASA, reverberated through everyone listening, just as they had throughout her own life and career. In speaking about the challenges she faced as one of only two women to ever command a space shuttle, Melroy inspired everyone in the room to always push to be better each day, to challenge yourself to achieve the hard things in order to enjoy the rewards, and to be a leader, even if we are only comfortable with being the leader of our own lives.

Author Lynn Sherr interviewing Pamela Melroy at Intrepid Museum's Space & Science Festival

Author Lynn Sherr interviewing Pamela Melroy at Intrepid Museum’s Space & Science Festival

After a long military career in the Air Force, Melroy ended her test pilot days to start training in NASA’s astronaut program at Johnson Space Center. She completed the training and served as shuttle pilot on STS-92 and STS-112 before serving as shuttle commander on STS-120. After flying, Melroy  took a lead role in the Columbia Reconstruction Team and Crew Survival Investigation Team. Finally, before retiring from NASA, she was the Branch Chief for the Orion branch, the new spacecraft NASA is building to take humans further into space, of the Astronaut Office. Since leaving NASA, Melroy has served in several roles all dedicated to the future of space exploration with Lockheed Martin, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and DARPA.

Cosmic Chicago: NASA and astronauts always make sure to emphasize that you don’t have to be a pilot to be accepted into the astronaut training program. As a pilot, what other skills did you rely on that you would tell students today to focus on?

Pamela Melroy: Two thirds of astronauts are not pilots, however the operational skills that come with being a pilot are really useful to being an astronaut, and that’s why so many astronauts flying the shuttles were pilots. I tell kids that it is important to develop operational skills, and for some people that means earning a private pilot license, scuba diving certification, or becoming an EMT or firefighter. Those skills are really important.

I think the other skills that are really fundamental that everyone has to have are things like getting along with people. That might sound kind of basic, but I can’t emphasize it enough. Stop and think about a two year trip to Mars, six months on the space station, or sixteen days on the space shuttle. Working with people is something that can be taught with practice, so students should practice things like sports where they can work with people and have a leadership experience. Maybe you aren’t meant to be a leader, but you can be a team player, and being in that position prepares you for being a team leader. Those things can be practiced and are important.

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You spent several years of your career as a test pilot. Do you have any advice for the new Commercial Crew Team that will be testing out next generation spacecraft?

They don’t need any advice from me! You might have noticed that there is something unique about all of them, and that’s that they all have test pilot experience. There are two test pilots, two flight test engineers, and all have trained at a test pilot school so they know exactly what they are getting into. They are going to do a great job.

In the time that has passed since you worked with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, commercial spaceflight interests have exploded. What are your thoughts on this growth, and do you foresee any major issues or problems that we face or need to be addressed?

Oh my gosh, we are in the Wright Brothers era of commercial space so that was a very interesting job for me. Do I foresee that we will have any mishaps? The Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo accident that resulted in the loss of one pilot and injury of another last year comes to mind. Absolutely, there will be mishaps. We will do that. The thing to remember though is that even at the height of the space shuttle era we sent less than fifty or so people into space a year- it was very controlled. We will learn so much more by commercial enterprise flying a lot and flying every day, and there will be mishaps then, just like there are mishaps today.

Q+Q with astronaut Pamela Melroy, Photo Credit: Marvin Mathew

Q+Q with astronaut Pamela Melroy, Photo Credit: Marvin Mathew

Having worked on the Columbia Reconstruction Team, what does it mean to you that the Forever Remembered Memorial Exhibit was added at Kennedy Space Center?

I am so pleased about that. For me, to work among the debris every day during recovery and reconstruction was very, very powerful. One of the things I wanted to see happen was for the debris, which was so moving and emotional, to be displayed to the public. I think enough time has passed that it’s not devastating. To some it can be devastating to see, but to me it honors the crews and the things that we have learned from the reconstruction.

Have you had the chance to see the exhibit yet?

No, I haven’t. But, I am really, really excited that they have opened that exhibit and I look forward to it.

*Special thanks to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum for inviting us out to cover Pamela’s astronaut event and helping arrange this interview. 
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