It is really just an accident that two women are in command of the space shuttle and the space station at the same time, which is a historic first in space.
Peggy Whitson is a lithe, brainy blond who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the space station, with a penchant for really cute shoes, who by all accounts is the perfect person for the job of commander of the International Space Station. This is her second trip to space; she spent six months on the space station in 2002.
Pam Melroy, the commander of Discovery STS 120, has flown as a shuttle pilot on missions in 2000 and 2002. She has the personality of the girl next door, who also happens to be a highly decorated Air Force pilot who flew in Desert Storm. She loves to dance and watch funny movies with her circle of friends, dubbed the Tank Girls Film Society.
She said she told everyone she met in high school that she was going to be an astronaut. "It was like, 'Hi my name is Pam Melroy and I am going to be an astronaut,' and I think it was all like one word: 'iampammelroy- andiamgoingtobeanastronaut.'"
The two women are a public relations dream team for NASA. But Whitson insists the timing of this historic first is pure happenstance.
"It's really just coincidence that this is happening at this point in time. But I do think it is meaningful in the sense that it is the first time it happened, but it just is an indication of where we are heading and where we are going in the future. The significance, I would hope, isn't something that is overdramatized."
Melroy insists to focus on the two of them would be to miss the point. This, she says, is not about us.
"That's what we mean when we say it is just a coincidence. We are very lucky. We are very blessed to have born in the years we were born, and have the doors open ahead of us so we could walk through them at the right time. It isn't about us. It's more about our culture and society and the fact that this is just where we have headed and this is where we are now, and this is neat."
Pilot George Zamka is one of Melroy's colleagues on STS 120. He says she is a great commander:
"I have watched her to see how she does it as a commander, and the things that I am impressed with, she has a tremendous level of attention to detail, and a tremendous ability to stay focused on these details for a very long time, and it was more than I thought I could ever do, and I was a little intimidated at how she could track down items related to our mission, things like photo TV, she tracks all the EVAs [extravehicular activities] what is going on with those. She has her hands on just about every little part of the mission, and there is so much going on that I think that is a pretty respectable bit of work and I just hope I can do as well, should it come my time someday."
Melroy is an incredible person, according to Scott Parazynski, one of the spacewalkers on this mission. "She is full of energy, incredibly technically competent, but knows how to have a good time, knows also when things need to get done and decisions need to get made, she is there to make them. She listens well and is not a dictatorial kind of person. She gives people a lot of leeway to take responsibility for the things they are responsible for, she wants to know about them so she can do their job better, I am thrilled for her. She is very modest. It really is a very significant milestone with her and Peggy flying this mission together."
In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space; Eileen Collin was the first woman to command a space shuttle in 1999. Why is it newsworthy that two women are in command in space at the same time? Melroy says it's all about the numbers.
Currently, there are 18 women who are astronauts at NASA. "What it is about is that there are enough women in the astronaut office that this can happen by sheer coincidence, and that tells you something about the numbers of women we have in the astronaut office and that to me is actually exciting and it is a moment to reflect on the progress that women have made in so many areas."
Astronaut Dan Tani is also flying to the space station on STS 120, and will spend two months on the orbiting outpost under the command of Whitson. They were both in the same astronaut class in 1996.
"She threw the best parties, she cooked the best food for parties, she was fun to be around, but when I started training with her as my commander, I was amazed at the depth of her technical expertise. I continue to be. The amount that she knows about the station and its operation blows me away, and the ability, her leadership and management skills, always amaze me. I always knew her as a really fun person, to be around, enjoyable, warm but now I see a whole different side of her, and my respect for her just deepens the more I work with her. I can't wait to get up there and work with her on station."
How does Melroy describe Whitson? "She's a strong Iowa farm girl. I love Peggy's leadership style; I think the most important element of it is her sense of humor, which is really just a sense of perspective. And that is really important because as a leader you have to keep the big picture. She has that perspective and it allows her to laugh. I also like her communication style, just fits with mine. She is very direct and yet, kind at the same time"
Whitson says she and Melroy work well together.
"The thing that I admire most about Pam is that she knows everyone on her crew. She knows all the ins and outs of what this person likes and doesn't like. And that is something I strive to do so I really admire it in her that she is so intuitive about people and understanding people. I think that's probably the most special thing about Pam."
What do they take with them into space? Whitson says don't come visit the space station if you haven't brought food. "The last time Jeff Ashby had called in advance and asked what I needed aboard the space station. I said 'salsa and I won't open the hatch unless you have some.'"
Melroy learned on her last flight you can't bring too much coffee.
"I don't drink coffee but I have actually stowed extra because you know I can be the hero on Flight Day 8 when everybody else has run out of coffee and I can pull it out of my locker. So I would say coffee is one of those things that no one goes into space without. Everybody has to have their caffeine."
They both are aware they are role models, but are happy to send a message to girls that there is no limit to the possibilities. Whitson says her mother made sure she knew that. "My mom telling me that I could do anything I wanted and that I could achieve anything I wanted with some work was one of the most key of my life, in, I guess, believing that I could do this."
Melroy agrees. "My parents always told me I could do anything I wanted. This is not what they thought I would do with that, but that is very much the message. So that is the message I think you need to give your children and make sure that they know that you believe that."