In September of 1990, I had the Grand Opening of the New Mexico Space Grant offices on the campus of New Mexico State University, on the steps of Goddard Hall. Len Sugerman was the Chamber of Commerce host, and there were many of my good friends in attendance. I was for many years a Conquistador organization, the Chamber’s Good Will Ambassadors.
It was also a time for me to begin my job as the Associate Director of the Space Grant Consortium, which I was to lead eight years later. One of the people NASA sent to help us with the Grand Opening was Susan Helms, an engineer, graduate of the Air Force Academy, pilot, and astronaut. Her parents lived in Albuquerque at the time, and we were glad to have an astronaut’s family New Mexico.
After the ceremonies at NMSU, we went to the Las Cruces Museum of Natural History and held a class for students. Susan told them of her training, of her upcoming missions and her hobbies. This was the first time I heard about the Astronaut Band, of which she was a member.
Afterwards, she told me something I have not forgotten. She remarked on the many outreach activities she had done during her time in the astronaut Corp, but she had not seen yet, an audience of children so well versed on the space program as those in Las Cruces.
She is now Major General Helms, Director of Plans and Policy, U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. As a flight test engineer, General Helms has flown in 30 types of U.S. and Canadian military aircraft. On Jan. 13, 1993, then an Air Force major and a member of the space shuttle Endeavour crew, she became the first U.S. military woman in space. She flew on STS-54 (1993), STS-64 (1994), STS-78 (1996) and STS-101 (2000), and served aboard the International Space Station as a member of the Expedition-2 crew (2001). A veteran of five space flights, General Helms has logged 211 days in space, including a spacewalk of eight hours and 56 minutes, a world record.
Another woman I have long admired, another record holder, is astronaut Shannon Lucid. She has a doctorate in biochemistry, and at the time of her longest spaceflight on Mir, the Russian Space Station. Shuttle, she was 53 years old and researching the effects of long duration spaceflight on bone loss. A pilot, and also a veteran of five space flights, Dr. Lucid has logged 5,354 hours (223 days) in space. Until June 2007 she also held the record for the most flight hours in orbit by any woman in the world. Astronaut health is well studied, this link is to the journal article on bone loss in astronauts vs the rest of the population. http://lsda.jsc.nasa.gov/refs/LSAH/Vol_13_Issue_2_Apr_05.pdf. There are many biographies now of the women who have flown in space over the years, these are just two whose careers I have followed.
Ninety years ago, the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was passed. The first time I was able to vote in 1970, there were no American women in the astronaut corps. When I got involved with NASA in 1990, women had become an integral part of the agency and over the years I have met many of the astronauts.
We have another astronaut, Clay Anderson, coming to join us for the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight Public Forum. This event is free to the public, and held annually to honor the memory of Len Sugerman. It will be held on October 19th at the Pan American Center on the campus of NMSU. This year, one of the programs we will highlight is the Student Microgravity Flight Opportunity Program.
Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, Ph.D, came to NMSU to help me get this program started in New Mexico. Over one hundred New Mexico students from NMSU, NM Tech and UNM have been funded by Space Grant to fly in this program. Sonya Cooper, Ph.D., and our faculty advisory, has been with the program since the beginning. Last year, two NMSU students flew an experiment that may help generate small amounts of energy on the International Space Station. The two students will also be on stage with astronaut Clay Anderson, whose wife is a graduate of NMSU. Our students won a contest and their experiment will soon fly to space aboard one of the new spacecraft being designed by a private firm, Masten Space Systems, who may fly this experiment from Spaceport America.