From Star Trek Posters to NASA: The Journey of Pamela Melroy ’83
When NASA Deputy Administrator Pamela Melroy ’83 was a student at Wellesley, she lived in Tower Court. “I really loved my Tower room. And it is pretty hilarious to go back and look at my pictures because it’s all this beautiful wood and everything, and all I had was Star Trek and space posters all over it,” she recalls, laughing.
Melroy’s love of space started at an early age. She remembers watching the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission land on the moon, and despite the fact that at that time female pilots were still a novel idea, let alone female astronauts, she dreamed of going into space herself one day. When she enrolled at Wellesley, she immediately joined the 365th Cadet Wing of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) out of MIT. She returned there in early April of this year to discuss her time as an Air Force officer, her experiences as an astronaut, and her passion for leadership.
“As strange as it sounds, my career followed the exact trajectory that I had planned,” Melroy says. “And that’s not to say that everything went smoothly, because it didn’t.” She recalls a particular struggle the summer after her sophomore year, when she attended three weeks of intensive training required for commissioning, which was designed to develop cadets’ leadership, teamwork, and military skills. “You get thrown into these leadership positions with a group of people you do not know, and you have to figure it out,” she says. “It was hard, and I’ll tell you, I did not enjoy it, but I learned a lot.”
Despite the challenges of the AFROTC program, Melroy says she found it rewarding. “It really broadened my pool of friends. The relationships, the friendships that I formed in a detachment, were amazing,” she remembers. She says some of her classmates were daunted by the time and service commitment AFROTC required of her, and she recalls a non-AFROTC friend saying, “You’re on the bus all the time!” But Melroy wanted to be on the bus: “I really enjoyed it … [E]everybody gets that you’re a college student. Your grades come first. So ROTC is not nearly the burden that some of my fellow Wellesley students thought it was.” Her clear dedication served her well, and as a senior she became the Wing Commander––the cadet in charge of running the program.
It took me a long time to figure out that there’s not a women’s leadership style and a men’s leadership style. What it’s really about is being an authentic human being.Pam Melroy ’83
Melroy double majored in astronomy and physics at Wellesley. When she graduated, she was commissioned into the Air Force at the base of Severance Hill before leaving for undergraduate pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Texas, where she was one of only a few women in her class. Melroy was ready for that transition: “I take the approach of a scholar-warrior. … The rigor of my education at Wellesley prepared me well for learning, which was the most important thing.”
Melroy completed her pilot training in 1985 and transitioned to flying the KC-10, an aircraft specializing in airborne refueling and cargo transport. Because they were so new to the Air Force inventory of aircraft, only higher-ranking officers flew those planes; she was one of the only second lieutenants and women flying that aircraft at the time.
She fulfilled her dream of becoming an astronaut in 1994 when she was selected for astronaut training. She was the pilot for the space shuttle missions STS-92 in 2000 and STS-112 in 2002, and in 2007 she became the second woman to command a space flight as commander of the STS-120. Melroy spent over 38 days in space and retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel, after 24 years of service. She then took on leadership roles at Lockheed Martin, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
In 2021 President Joe Biden appointed Melroy deputy administrator of NASA. In this role, she performs the duties and exercises the powers delegated by the administrator, assists the administrator in making final agency decisions, and acts for the administrator in his absence by performing all necessary functions to govern NASA operations. Melroy is also responsible for laying out the agency’s vision and representing NASA to the Executive Office of the President, Congress, heads of federal and other appropriate government agencies, international organizations, and external organizations and communities.
As much as she loves flying, for Melroy being part of the military involved a lot more than that. “Military service is public service, and there’s a huge diversity [in both its people and its missions],” she says. “The military today gets asked to do unbelievably complicated and challenging missions.” Melroy says there has been a very human side to many military experiences: “Often they’re humanitarian disaster relief, sometimes it’s peacekeeping operations. But around the world, that’s the first exposure to Americans a lot of people have. It’s a real honor and a privilege.”
Melroy is excited for the future of space exploration and the role space plays here on Earth. She points out that space commercialization has made it less expensive and easier to send missions into space. In particular, this has benefited NASA’s Moon to Mars plan, which provides a framework for sustained peaceful human exploration of the solar system, by enabling it to outsource extra-orbital missions for the first time. She believes the U.S. Space Force has an important role in the continuing commercialization of space travel and the collaboration between government and commercial partners. The relatively small Space Force is more agile than its sister services, allowing it to work more effectively with the civilian industry.
Melroy advises students who are looking for a career beyond our skies to consider both government and industry roles. “If you are a strategic thinker, you will wind up in government, because we set the strategy for the country,” she says. “It’s a great place to be––you’re in the driver’s seat. Industry teaches innovation and speed. … It’s really important to your professional career to have experience on both sides.”
Through her work, Melroy has demonstrated that the exploration and development of space is not only a scientific and technological endeavor, but a deeply human one. And she says there’s not just one type of person who can make a difference and lead. “It took me a long time to figure out that there’s not a women’s leadership style and a men’s leadership style. What it’s really about is being an authentic human being,” she says. “We bring all of ourselves to everything. When people ask me if I had to learn a male leadership style, [I say] no. I needed to learn a Pam leadership style. I had to be my authentic self and bring my whole person, because that’s what matters to people. They need to know who you are.”