Whoop! Whoop! Lieutenant General Susan J. Helms‘ induction into the Astronaut Hall of Fame awed me last Saturday. It began with a successful Atlas rocket launch (one of Helms’ responsibilities, and just a coincidence that the launch window was on the same day). Then the men who inspired me when I was ten years old, strutted down the center aisle to the stage, one by one, to the tune of “Spirit in the Sky” from the soundtrack of Apollo 13. Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and the fourth American in space, was there. Dick Gordon, a pioneer in space docking and extravehicular activity (EVA or space walking) and the Command Module pilot during the second mission to land on the moon, joined him. Fred Haise, Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 13 and test pilot for the space shuttle,
immortalized in the movie Apollo 13 by actor Bill Paxton, joined them, as did 17 other members of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The achievements of these pilots set me on the path to follow them, although I only made it as far as military pilot. I felt like whispering to my classmate Susan, ‘Do you realize you are about to go on stage with real live legends?’ Then it hit me like a sledgehammer–Susan IS a real live Legend, more than deserving enough to stand among those other guys on the stage.
Susan and I broke new ground when we graduated with the first class to include women from the U.S. Air Force Academy. As an interesting aside, Karol Bobko, her co-inductee, graduated with the first class to include men from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Susan’s career before NASA included many achievements, such as her MS degree from Stanford University in Aeronautics and Astronautics and Distinguished Graduate from the AF Test Pilot School. She speaks Russian and Canadian (just joking–she was an exchange officer in Canada). Helms was the first American military woman in space. As an astronaut, she served aboard the International Space Station for approximately five months, and flew on seven shuttle missions. She has spent 211 days of her life out of this world (5064 hours in space) and shares the world record for the longest spacewalk (8 hours and 56 minutes). Helms excelled in her responsibilities as flight engineer, payload specialist, and payload commander, resulting in a string of successful space experiments, repairs, constructions, and missions.
Helms’ achievements did not end with her NASA career. She is now a three-star general in command of the 14th Air Force–the unit that was famous in World War II as the “Flying Tigers.” Her dual-hat command means that she is in charge of all military space launches and provides space capabilities to combat commanders. If the country is lucky, Susan Helms will continue to lead for many more years (for my non-military readers, that means I hope she makes four stars).
Susan, of course, has always focused intensely on the job at hand, even when the “job” is to have fun. I’ve never known her to be distracted by thoughts of future jobs or promotions. I hear that she is kind and fair to subordinates, although I bet she expects them to perform their missions exactingly. She hosted the most amazing 80’s Ladies parties at the launch of each of her space flights; of course, because she was in isolation with the other crew members, she never actually attended any of her galas. Thanks to her parents for serving in her stead. As you can see from her photos, Susan Helms has a smile that can light up a universe.
Susan, remember when, at the Academy, we all felt that we had to prove the capabilities of women? Your father may think he is proud, but we of Eighty’s Ladies are even prouder. Here is a toast to a woman whose achievements are legendary!