Servicewomen astronauts have expanding role in space exploration


The agency that would lead America to the moon and beyond was formed 50 years ago when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened its doors Oct. 1, 1958. Though heavily male dominated through much of its history, pioneering women—including many servicewomen—broke into and eventually through the astronaut corps ranks. More than two dozen women have flown for NASA, many of them in space. Today, women represent 26 percent of NASA's astronaut corps and comprise 33 percent of its workforce.


Some members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATS) reunited in 1995 to watch the launch of the first space shuttle piloted by a woman. They included, from left: Gene Nora Jessen, Mary Wallace Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. (Among FLAT members not pictured are: Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson, Irene Leverton, Rhea Hurrle and Allison Woltman.) Photo Courtesy of NASA, copyright 2008. 


Such statistics seemed further than the moon itself when the first female astronaut hopefuls were recruited in 1961. Thirteen women pilots became FLATs (First Lady Astronaut Trainees) in a special class at the Lovelace Clinic program that assessed and prepared women for spaceflight. FLATs were being primed for a Mercury 13 flight; however, the project was discontinued. Though the Soviet Union's female astronauts flew in space as early as 1963, FLATs never did. US women waited decades, until 1983, when astrophysicist Dr. Sally Ride flew as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle.

Dozens of American women have since worn NASA flight suits, but a smaller number have also worn an American military uniform, including the first female pilot and commander of a space shuttle, Col. Eileen Marie Collins, USAF (Ret.), a former military flight instructor and test pilot. You can read more about Col. Collins and other servicewomen in the astronaut corps, past and present, in the biography section of the NASA Web site.

Col. Catherine Coleman
US Air Force

COL Nancy J. Currie
US Army
CAPT Kathryn P. Hire
US Navy Reserve

Col. Pamela A. Melroy
US Air Force (Ret.)

CAPT Stefanyshyn-Piper
US Navy


CDR Sunita L. Williams
US Navy

Photos Courtesy of NASA, copyright 2008

Servicewomen in the Astronaut Corps
Servicewomen who serve as NASA astronauts today include:
Col. Catherine Coleman, Ph.D., USAF, joined the Air Force in college in 1983 and served as a research chemist and as volunteer test subject for the Air Force centrifuge program before joining NASA in 1992.

COL Nancy Jane Currie,
Ph.D., USA (Ret). Prior to retiring from the Army after 23 years in 2005, she had served as an instructor pilot at the Army Aviation Center, recording 4,000 flying hours. She joined NASA in 1990.

CAPT Kathryn P. Hire,
USNR, became one of the first military women assigned to a combat aircrew when, in 1993, she reported to Patrol Squadron Six, P-3 Maritime Patrol Aircraft. She was activated and served in the Global War on Terror and has received the Defense Superior Service Medal and Joint Service Commendation Medal. She joined NASA in 1995.

Col. Pamela Ann Melroy,
USAF (Ret.) Commissioned through ROTC in 1983, she was a KC-10 instructor pilot and a veteran of Operation Just Cause and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, logging over 200 combat and combat support hours. She also flew as a test pilot, flying 5,000 hours in 50 different aircraft. She retired from the USAF in 2007 and remains at NASA, which she joined in 1995. Read more about how she also became the second female space shuttle commander in a Women's Memorial Foundation feature.

CAPT Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper,
USN, was commissioned through ROTC in 1985 and served as a basic diving and salvage officer as well as an engineering officer. She joined NASA in 1996.

CDR Sunita L. Williams,
USN, a 1987 Naval Academy graduate, was twice awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and also received a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. She became a Naval aviator in 1989, flying helicopters during Operations Desert Shield and Provide Comfort, and the Hurricane Andrew Relief effort. She became a test pilot and instructor and joined NASA in 1998. She now serves as the deputy chief, astronaut office, Johnson Space Center. She also gained national attention as the first astronaut to run a marathon in space. Read about her race in a special Women's Memorial Foundation feature.

CAPT Laurel Clark
US Navy
Col. Eileen Marie Collins
US Air Force (Ret.)
MAJ M. Hughes-Fulford
US Army Reserve
CDR Susan Kilrain
US Navy (Ret.)

CAPT Wendy Lawrence
US Navy

CAPT Lisa M. Nowak
US Navy

Photos Courtesy of NASA, copyright 2008

Servicewomen Astronaut Veterans
Among the servicewomen who helped blaze the trail into space are:
CAPT Laurel Blair Salton Clark, M.D., USN, earned three Navy Commendation Medals before her death aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, upon re-entry, on Feb. 1, 2003. She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Medal. She had earned three Navy Commendation Medals during her career as a diving medical officer and flight surgeon. She joined NASA in 1996.

Col. Eileen Marie Collins,
USAF (Ret.), flew missions in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada and received the Defense Superior Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Force Commendation Medal. She joined the Air Force in 1979, taught mathematics at the USAF Academy and served as a C-141 instructor pilot and test pilot before joining NASA in 1990.

MAJ Millie Hughes-Fulford, Ph.D.,
USAR, a molecular biologist who served in the Army Reserve Medical Corps while serving as a NASA astronaut. She joined NASA in 1983.

CDR Susan Kilrain,
USN (Ret.), a distinguished graduate of the Naval Test Pilot School, was a TA-4J Skyhawk flight instructor who logged more than 3,000 flight hours in 30 different aircraft, including the F-14 Tomcat. She joined NASA in 1995.

CAPT Wendy B. Lawrence,
USN, a 1981 Naval Academy graduate and helicopter pilot, taught physics at the US Naval Academy before becoming a NASA astronaut in 1992.

CAPT Lisa M. Nowak,
USN, a 1985 Naval Academy graduate and flight officer, flew more than 1,500 hours in 30 different aircraft including the F/A-18 and EA-6B. She joined NASA in 1996.

To learn more about servicewomen astronauts and women's contributions to NASA, visit the agency's Web site at www.nasa.gov.

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(September 2008)