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During that space walk, Melroy focused on each approaching milestone–and on her watch. “The clock was ticking,” she says. “I was very alert and intensely focused on the consumables and the risks. After the solar array deployed and the whole crew was cheering and excited, I had to be the one to remind everyone that Scott was still way out there and we needed to hold off on celebrating until he and Doug were safely back inside.” She reports that Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock did make it back safely, Parazynski having traversed a record-setting distance of about 140 feet. “Afterwards, it’s like, wow, that was really cool,” Melroy says. “But at the time, you realize you could be a hero or a goat, or someone could get hurt.”

In her role as mission parent, Melroy was strict, insisting on lights out at the designated time. She says the workload was so intense that people kept at their projects right up until bedtime. Each night, she placed a two-hour countdown clock at mid-deck. “I warned everyone,” she says. And when the clock hit zero, “I just turned the lights out and said you can’t work anymore.” Whitson, the space-station commander, was “less strict about lights out,” a crew member told her. “So the kids would go over there if they wanted to stay up a little bit later.” On her own flight deck, astronauts would be bundled in sleeping bags, free floating, saying their good-nights to each other in the dark, not unlike a space-age version of the Waltons.

In orbit, Melroy had plenty of opportunity to put theory into practice, to critically assess technical problems, and to apply general principles to novel situations–all skills she says she gained at MIT. But that left her little time to ponder the historical significance of the fact that both the shuttle commander and the space-station commander were women–a first that the Associated Press called “a giant leap for womankind.” Later, she would marvel that “25 years ago, the idea of a woman commander of a spacecraft was something I was thinking about and aware of and hopeful for. But it never crossed my mind that we would have had two at the same time.”

Moving from pilot to commander required a shift in perspective. “On ascent and entry, pilots are charged with keeping the systems running to support our trajectory,” she explains. “As commander, the big picture and the trajectory are your responsibility: Where are we going? Are we headed the right way? Can we make it there?”

Melroy ably shouldered that responsibility, keeping Discovery and her crew on track–and laughing–for 6.25 million miles and 238 orbits of Earth. Mission accomplished.

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Credit: NASA

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