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
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