NewsWomen's History Month


One of first female Air Force Academy graduates, Susan Helms, becomes first female military astronaut in space

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Posted at 5:45 PM, Mar 28, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-29 13:37:23-04

DENVER — Neil Armstrong may have made one small step for man, but Susan Helms made one giant leap for womankind.

"She was one of the first women at the Air Force Academy. And she also was the first military woman astronaut, and did the longest spacewalk of anybody," Betty Heid, the executive producer of the Great Colorado Women film series said.

She set the world record for longest spacewalk at 8 hours and 56 minutes, NASA said.

Helms was also the first woman to serve on the International Space Station (ISS), officials the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame said. She served as the first female Commander of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from 2006-2008. And her last assignment was the first female commander of both the 14th Air Force, USAF Space Command Joint Forces Component Command-Space, US Strategic Command.

"There are not many generals in the military, and there are even fewer female generals in the military. And so she had to be a role model. And she had to be exceptional," Dr. Sanchez said.

Her historic career began with a bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1980, History Colorado wrote in an entry about her life and legacy.

"From the time that Susan was in the Air Force Academy, she wanted to be an astronaut, and she helped shape her military career towards becoming an astronaut," Dr. Merri Sanchez, who retired from NASA and the Air Force, said in the Great Colorado Women documentary on Helms.

But it may have just been in her blood. Her father was a colonel in the Air Force.

"One of the extraordinary things about that first group of women going to the Air Force Academy is there's a big sign at the entrance that says, 'Bring me men,'" Helms' sister Marji Karish said in the Great Colorado Women film series, "which is astonishing as the first class enters. That was her first day. That was her entry. With the other women that were crossing a barrier and changing the world."

Helms then went on to get her master's degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University in 1985. She returned to the Air Force Academy after that and began teaching there.

NASA selected Helms to officially become an astronaut in July 1991, according to the U.S. Air Force.

Her first flight was aboard the "Endeavour" in January 1993, according to History Colorado. And she helped gather information that allowed investigators to further understand the origins of the Milky Way Galaxy, according to History Colorado.

"The crew demonstrated the physics principles of everyday toys to an interactive audience of elementary school students across the United States," NASA said.

In 2011, Helms was inducted into the Astronauts Hall of Fame. And in 2012, she was awarded the Russian Medal of Merit for Space Exploration for her contribution to the development of international cooperation in human space exploration, according to NASA.

In her retirement, Helms started a nonprofit called AstraFemina with a couple of other retired astronauts with the hope of bringing STEM education to young girls.

Air Force Academy graduate becomes first woman military astronaut in space

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