“I was lucky because this particular crew had good chemistry, and also really enjoyed laughing,” she says. Some commanders might have been less tolerant of humorous antics, fearing a loss of focus. But Melroy saw that humor could help relieve stress that might otherwise sap the crew’s mental energy. “The most important way I could help them was to let them laugh and joke around,” she says. “This might be the opposite of what you’d expect, but the more they laughed, the more focused they were.”
Melroy describes her Discovery mission–NASA’s 23rd shuttle flight to the space station–as “a laugh a minute,” noting with pleasure that the crew decided to add a blooper reel to the official video of mission highlights. “We had so many funny moments that we couldn’t fit into the regular story of our mission,” she says. “But they were so funny that we couldn’t resist having them.”
Delivering the space-station hub made Melroy only the second woman in NASA history to command a shuttle mission. She’d been determined to become an astronaut since watching the first lunar landing at the age of seven, and she made her first flight, as shuttle pilot, in 2000. On that first mission, she says, she was the baby of the crew; on this third one, she was the parent. “The biggest adjustment to make when you become the commander is all of the additional responsibilities that come with it,” she says. “You don’t know how it feels until you have to make the decisions for yourself.”
Melroy had to weigh in with the mission management team on plenty of time-critical decisions in orbit, such as whether to shift the crew’s sleeping schedules so that the shuttle could land during the day rather than at night. When the mission got behind schedule, she had to adjust the crew’s assignments on the fly. And when the solar array hit a snag and tore as it unfurled in its new location, she faced the biggest decision of the mission: was the crew really ready to undertake an emergency space walk to make repairs? Melroy hints at the loneliness of being in command as she recounts the story of the day that walk took place.
“The ground put together a plan for us to send a space walker out farther than we had ever sent anyone before,” she says, putting him a 45-minute trip from the airlock in a suit that could only support a 30-minute oxygen leak. “We had to kludge together the robotic arm from the station with the boom from the shuttle for him to be able to reach it, and the solar array was fully charged. There were a lot of risks that we didn’t have time to fully assess. We had to just try to do our best to be careful. I remember feeling very clear in my head that I was going to be the one to say, ‘Scott, you’ve got to stop doing that and come in now.’ I felt that everyone else was so hugely committed to succeeding that they would keep going no matter what, and it was my responsibility to be the safety person who called it off if need be. Fortunately, I didn’t need to do that, but I felt pretty lonely at that moment when I thought, ‘I’m not going to be very popular if I have to make this decision. But I’m going to make it if I have to.’”