FORT MEADE, Md. (AFNS) — When Neil Armstrong made history with man’s first footsteps on the moon, Susan Helms needed a little nudging from her mom to get excited. And get excited she did. She realized that there would never be another first step on the moon, and even as a young 11-year-old, knew the feat was something special.
Little did she know that a little more than two decades later, then Maj. Helms would be the first woman military astronaut to fly in space.
“I would read books on science, the planets, the universe and nature,” Helms said. “I spent a lot of time with my nose in a book.”
That interest in science would lead to graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1980, as a member of that first graduating class of women cadets.
Helms began her Air Force career as an F-15 and F-16 weapons separation engineer with the Air Force Armament Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. After going back to school to obtain a Master of Science degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University, she would head back to the Academy as an assistant professor of aeronautics.
She would then get the assignment that would catapult her into the history books.
In January of 1990, Helms was selected by NASA to become an astronaut, and after rigorous training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, would officially become an astronaut in July of 1991.
Her first space shuttle flight was aboard the Endeavor in January of 1993, where she and her crew were responsible for deploying a $200 million tracking and data relay satellite. A Diffuse X-Ray Spectometer carried in the payload bay collected more than 80,000 seconds of X-ray data that would help answer questions about the origin of the Milky Way galaxy.
A year-and-a-half later Helms would serve aboard the Discovery as the flight engineer for orbiter operations, with the mission to validate the design and operations of the Lidar in Space Technology Experiment, or LITE.
Her third shuttle flight took her aboard the Columbia, where in late June and early July of 1996, Helms was the payload commander and flight engineer on the longest space shuttle mission at the time – a total of 16 days, 21 hours and 48 minutes.
During middle to late May of 2000, Helms performed a mission on Atlantis dedicated to the delivery and repair of hardware for the International Space Station. She also had the responsibility of maintaining and repairing the onboard computer network, and served as a mission specialist for the rendezvous with the station.
During her final mission in March of 2001, Helms lived and worked aboard the International Space Station. She was part of a two American and one Russian team with the mission of conducting tests on the Canadian-built Space Station Remote Manipulator System, conducting maintenance, and medical and science experiments. On March 11, she set a world record space walk of 8 hours and 56 minutes. She would spend a total of 163 days aboard the space station.
After a 12-year NASA career that included 211 days in space, Helms returned to the Air Force in July 2002 to take a position as the chief of the air superiority division at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force Space Command. Today, Helms is a lieutenant general, assigned as the commander of the 14th Air Force and the Joint Functional Component Command for Space at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. She leads a command of more than 20,500 Airmen and civilians responsible for providing missile warning, space superiority, space situational awareness, satellite operations, space launch and range operations.