SHE AIMED FOR THE STARS – AND DIDN’T MISS

For­mer NASA as­tro­naut Pamela Mel­roy had the right stuff for space mis­sions, and now she’s bring­ing her ex­per­tise to Aus­tralia

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Travel -

Pamela Mel­roy is noth­ing if not fo­cused, with a steely-eyed at­ten­tion that has been es­sen­tial in con­quer­ing male-dom­i­nated bas­tions and climb­ing to the top of her cho­sen pro­fes­sion – and be­yond.

On a July af­ter­noon in 1969, at the age of seven, the Amer­i­can sat down to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin be the first to walk on the Moon. When Mel­roy stood up again, she had de­cided she, too, would be an as­tro­naut.

“Like a whole gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers, I was in­spired by the Moon land­ing and the Apollo pro­gram,” says the 57-year-old. “I de­cided I wanted to be an as­tro­naut, as you do, and some of us never out­grow it.”

And it’s not like there were nu­mer­ous fe­male role models at the time. “Women weren’t as­tro­nauts and weren’t even mil­i­tary test pi­lots – weren’t even mil­i­tary pi­lots, pe­riod,” she says.

What she did have on her side was two very sup­port­ive par­ents who told her she could do any­thing she wanted. “One of my col­leagues, who was a class­mate at Welles­ley [a pres­ti­gious women’s col­lege in the US], and she’s now the head of the sci­ence cen­tre, said that around the same age her par­ents told her that girls couldn’t be as­tro­nauts, so she just walked away from the whole idea,” says Mel­roy.

Young Mel­roy pur­sued a BA in physics and as­tron­omy at Welles­ley be­fore win­ning her way into pi­lot train­ing in the US Air Force in 1984.

Had she al­ways kept her eye on the prize of space? “Ab­so­lutely, the whole time,” she replies. “I wanted to go to test-pi­lot school and be­come a test pi­lot be­cause I wanted to be a pi­lot as­tro­naut and fly and land the shut­tle.”

In­evitably, it seems, her cho­sen ca­reer path opened up be­fore her, and she worked hard in a field she loved. “Be­ing a test pi­lot was awe­some be­cause, in the end, I am a techie,” says Mel­roy. “The op­por­tu­nity to merge sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy with fly­ing is what be­ing a test pi­lot is all about. You ba­si­cally are do­ing ex­per­i­ments with air­planes and analysing them and do­ing dis­cov­ery.

“I went into pi­lot train­ing in 1984 and then was se­lected to join the as­tro­naut pro­gram and re­ported in March of 1995.”

She ad­mits that she had long held a vi­sion of what it would be like to re­ceive the call-up to the pro­gram.

“I had this pic­ture that I would be sit­ting in my kitchen, at my kitchen ta­ble, when the phone rang – and it was ex­actly how it hap­pened. [It was] pretty awe­some.”

NASA’s as­tro­naut pro­gram was as amaz­ing as ad­ver­tised, as the test pi­lot worked her way to­wards be­com­ing that rare bird, a fe­male shut­tle com­man­der.

“There were defi­nitely more [women] at NASA than I saw in the Air Force, for sure, but there weren’t very many women pi­lots,” says Mel­roy. “On the Space Shut­tle pro­gram, there were only three women pi­lots to­tal, and all three of us flew, but only two of us ended up com­mand­ing the Space Shut­tle.”

Her time at NASA meant help­ing work on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS) and get­ting the gi­ant struc­ture into space, piece by piece, to as­sem­ble there.

In 2000, Mel­roy be­came just the third woman to pi­lot a Space Shut­tle to the ISS, go­ing again in 2002 and in com­mand in 2007, rack­ing up more than 562 hours in space and get­ting “into the guts of the ISS” like any good techie. She also man­aged to cope with space adap­ta­tion syn­drome, the body’s re­ac­tion to the zero-G en­vi­ron­ment. “It’s some­thing that you worry about be­cause every­body re­acts dif­fer­ently,” she says. “I al­ways found, es­pe­cially by the time I woke up the next morn­ing [in space], I was ready to go, ready to float.”

Back on Earth, fam­ily is also a fo­cus for Mel­roy, who is mar­ried and has two grand­chil­dren. “That vi­sion I had of get­ting the call at the kitchen ta­ble,

I re­alised there could be some­body to cel­e­brate with or not – that’s al­ways been very im­por­tant to me,” she says.

In 2009, as the shut­tle pro­ject wound down, she de­cided to take her ex­per­tise to in­dus­try, to work on the lunar ve­hi­cle Orion with Lockheed Martin.

The move took her on a tra­jec­tory from in­dus­try to the FAA’s Of­fice of Com­mer­cial Space Trans­porta­tion, to DARPA, and all the way to Aus­tralia to share her ex­pe­ri­ence with our ex­pand­ing space in­dus­try. “If you truly want to be suc­cess­ful [in space], you need to look at the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween the tech­nol­ogy, the busi­ness model and pol­icy,” says Mel­roy. “I’m prob­a­bly the most hard-headed in the room…

“I DE­CIDED I WANTED TO BE AN AS­TRO­NAUT, AS YOU DO, AND SOME OF US NEVER OUT­GROW IT”

I’ve seen a lot of ef­forts fail and a lot of peo­ple try, so I have a very prac­ti­cal ap­proach to it – you have to have all the pieces in place.”

A visit to South Aus­tralia 17 years ago, her­alded a new cul­tural love in her life, so when good friend and chair and co-founder of Nova Group Jim Whal­ley en­cour­aged her to come here and share her ex­pe­ri­ence, she was up for it.

“I had al­ways wanted to live in Aus­tralia,” says Mel­roy. “Jim called me up back in 2017 and said, ‘I think we might be about to do this space agency thing for real. What would you think about mov­ing to SA and just help­ing?’”

She now works as di­rec­tor of space tech­nol­ogy and pol­icy with Nova Sys­tems, but on­go­ing com­mit­ments in the US have meant she hasn’t yet been able to make a per­ma­nent base here.

She has also hooked up with Myri­ota in Ade­laide as non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, after tal­ent-spot­ting the com­pany. “Of course, you build spe­cial re­la­tion­ships, and Myri­ota is very spe­cial,” she says. “Myri­ota has tech­nol­ogy that no-one else in the world has.”

Back in the US, she is an ad­viser to the Na­tional Space Coun­cil and wel­comes the re­cent bid to have boots on the Moon by 2024. In any case, Mel­roy hopes to fa­cil­i­tate that jour­ney – and it seems likely she’ll achieve what­ever goal she sets her mind to. For more, visit fu­tureADL.com.au.

STAR POWER (op­po­site) For­mer NASA as­tro­naut Pamela Mel­roy is now the di­rec­tor of space tech­nol­ogy and pol­icy with Nova Sys­tems and non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Myri­ota in South Aus­tralia; (above) Mel­roy as a young

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