On Tuesday, NASA Commander Pamela Melroy is scheduled to blast off in the space shuttle Discovery, headed for the International Space Station (ISS), where she will be met by ISS Commander Peggy Whitson. This is the first time women have been in command of both the shuttle and the ISS at the same time. The Boston Globe is touting this as a landmark for women, though they note (as does Melroy in a NASA interview) that this is a complete coincidence, as Melroy’s mission was originally scheduled for several months earlier. Somehow, that’s much cooler than if this was a planned NASA publicity stunt.
It’s worth noting, of course, that it’s unlikely an out LGBT person would have a chance at commanding a shuttle because of NASA’s emphasis on military experience for Pilot Astronaut Candidates. (Military experience is not necessary for mission specialists, nor for command of the ISS, but shuttle commanders need to have been pilots.) Melroy is a retired Air Force colonel, a combat veteran of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and a former test pilot.
The military’s policy on LGBT personnel is not Melroy’s fault, by any means, and I do not hold anything against her for pursuing her dreams any more than I hold it against my straight friends when they marry. I’d just be remiss if I didn’t note this additional lack of opportunity for LGBT Americans, especially as this mission is being (rightly) seen as a sign of the progress of equality.
I have a special interest in this mission, too, as Melroy is a graduate of the Wellesley College astronomy department, where I also majored. She was there five years before me, however, and I can’t claim to know her, though I’ve shaken her hand at a couple of reunions.
I wish them and their crews both the best of wishes in their missions, an unintentional, combined inspiration to girls who look outside at night and imagine flying to the stars. I hope that by the time those girls grow up, there will be no social barriers to their doing so in any capacity for which they are qualified.