Melroy is one of the only two women to command the space shuttle. She was selected for the astronaut program in 1995 and completed three space missions — twice as a pilot and once as a commander.
All three missions help to build the International Space Station.
She retired from NASA in 2009. Melroy will be inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in May.
We caught up with her about Rochester, her career, sci-fi, and of course, The Big Three Questions.
In your words, tell me about this award, and what it means to you.
(Getting into) the Astronaut Hall of Fame is a great honor. I think from my perspective, what I think is significant about it is that the award is selected by some of my peers.
In addition to that, not just retired astronauts and former awardees, but also significant people who have been executives in the space program for many years.
It also takes into account things that you’ve done since you’ve left NASA, which I think is wonderful, because I’m proud of everything I accomplished while I was there, and I’m also excited and proud of things that I’ve done since I left.
I feel very proud that I’m being recognized.
I grew up on Star Trek, and I think every kid dreams of someplace else. Was there a sparkplug moment for you when you realize you had to be out in space?
It was absolutely the Apollo program.
The inspiration of seeing humans on the surface of the moon, and I would say my whole generation of astronauts were hugely inspired by Apollo:
The idea of being able to explore, to see something that no one else has ever seen, in a lot of ways it’s same reason I love science and technology; that thrill of the unique, of discovery, the capability, the sight, or something that’s never been done before, and the insights that come with that.
To me that’s just endlessly fascinating, and I feel that the world is such an interesting place that I’m always on the hunt for new things to learn.
Talk to me about your time in Rochester.
Oh boy, I loved Rochester. We (my parents and I) moved around a lot when I was a kid, my dad was in the military, but we settled in Rochester when I was about in seventh grade.
Rochester has always been my hometown. That’s the place where I had most of my formative experiences. My parents lived there for more than forty years…
I love Rochester.
What’s something you miss from Rochester?
Ooh! You know, it’s funny, because you do have these moments where you miss the food and certain things.
I’m a big fan of the garbage plate, from Nick Tahou’s, I also love Dinosaur BBQ…
One of things that I picked up when I was back was some lilac-scented things, because lilacs always make me think of Rochester.
But it’s really about the friends, for me its getting together with them.
Going to your career, there’s so much that I could ask you, but I want to ask you about the moment you found out that you were commanding the space shuttle mission. What was that like?
It was a pretty exciting week. I knew that my turn was coming, I had a sense that it was going to happen, but I had some other things going on in my life.
It was the week I got married. I kinda felt sorry for my husband, he had never been through all that before. It’s a lot.
It’s kind of funny, there’s an induction for the Hall of Fame, and I asked him if he’s ready to go and do all this big stuff again!
He’s ready for it.
This is such a corny question… But how’s the view up there?
Oh my gosh… It’s amazing, it’s astounding.
When I was back in Rochester, maybe ten years ago, I was talking to some people at the University of Rochester, and (Rochester’s) great background with Kodak and film and digital and all of that other stuff, I was saying:
“Look guys, we haven’t got it yet, because I can tell you, I can see with my eyes, the pictures and the video don’t even begin to do it justice. You just have to see it with your own eyes, the shading of color, the dynamics…”
But it’s the big insights too. You don’t look down at the earth, and it’s hard to see cities and people. What you see is the earth as one big giant ecosystem, as a single spaceship, and we are the crew.
What is the next thing you would like to see accomplished in space travel?
Really what I’ve been working towards in my whole career and certainly since I left NASA, is for everybody to have the opportunity to buy a ticket, just like you can on an airplane today.
You could travel and go into space and get this perspective of the earth, and really be able to understand not just the incredible distances, but also the diversity of our solar system, the things that we can learn from other planets that will help us understand our own. I think there’s so much out there.
It’s exciting that commercial is getting into the game, and if you think about aviation, we have military aviation, commercial aviation, and private aviation.
Someday there are going to be people who can own and fly a spacecraft for fun, just like a small private airplane.
That’s my vision.
Let’s hit The Big Three. What about Rochester makes it such a good “launching pad”?
I’m fond of saying that Rochester is the largest small town that I’ve ever seen. It’s all of the wonderful things that come from a small community, where it’s like a family — with those kind of relationships and support — they’re incredibly important. People are very community-minded; it’s small enough so it’s true.
But at the same time, world class capabilities, both technically, in industry, and in academia.
It’s a wonderful place to be from.
You have such an amazing career, but if you could accomplish one thing and hang up your coat and call it a day, what would it be?
That’s a great question. I’m not sure I’m ever going to hang up my coat.
Maybe a lot of people would say that commanding a space shuttle would be that one thing, but that’s just not enough for me.
I think really what I would like to spend time doing is advancing the technologies, and seeing us return to the Moon.
That’s going to be deeply satisfying to me, not just return to the moon like Apollo which was a camping trip, but return to stay, and be able to do the science and get the insights of actually living and working on the surface of another celestial body.
Not a “B3” question here, but you got me thinking. Out of all the sci-fi you’ve consumed, which is the closest to representing how life on other planets for humans could work?
I’m still going to go back to Star Trek.
It’s amazing, even though they didn’t full appreciate the science of it… It’s about the humans, because in the end, that’s what it’s about.
It was stories about people being put into situations that maybe they were unfamiliar with while they were exploring. You learn about yourself.
I think that’s what resonates with me, and I think it’s true.
If you have any advice for a young, aspiring scientists or explorers, what would it be?
It would be to pursue interests.
People talk about pursuing your passion, and I think it’s become an overused word.
I know that things I became passionate about, I stumbled across because I had to learn about them for a job, and I wasn’t initially really passionate about it.
Go after things that have real impact in this world. Don’t be satisfied to evolve or stretch beyond what little is known today.
Look around and say I want to work on a big problem… And I think that’s what our scientists should be working on today.
You can watch the full interview here:
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