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Female astronaut pioneers last frontier

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Col. Susan Helms was the first U.S. military woman in space in 1993, the first woman to inhabit the International Space Station in 2001, and she holds the world record, along with crewmate Army Col. Jim Voss, for the longest space walk of eight hours and 56 minutes, also in 2001.  She is now the chief of the space control division at Air Force Space Command.  (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Col. Susan Helms was the first U.S. military woman in space in 1993, the first woman to inhabit the International Space Station in 2001, and she holds the world record, along with crewmate Army Col. Jim Voss, for the longest space walk of eight hours and 56 minutes, also in 2001. She is now the chief of the space control division at Air Force Space Command. (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFPN) -- Whether they sailed across the oceans, climbed mountains, or rolled across the Great Plains, pioneers were first to explore new frontiers. Col. Susan Helms is not rambling across the prairie in a covered wagon, but she is a pioneer. She is an astronaut. Her frontier: space.

Helms was the first U.S. military woman in space in 1993 and the first woman to inhabit the International Space Station in 2001. She is co-holder of the world record, along with her crewmate Army Col. Jim Voss, for the longest space walk of eight hours and 56 minutes. She is now the chief of the space control division at Air Force Space Command.

Helms, a 1980 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy completed the test engineer course at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in 1987. She was a distinguished graduate and recipient of the R. L. Jones Award for Outstanding Flight Test Engineer.

It was during her time at Edwards that someone first mentioned that she would be competitive for the astronaut program after graduation. Throughout the course, she met with several astronauts to talk about the U.S. space program.

The defining moment for Helms was during the test pilot school graduation, when guest speaker Col. Dick Covey, an astronaut, approached her and said, "I hope we see you in Houston some time." He was referring to the Johnson Space Center, home of astronaut training.

"I took that as the final sign that I should probably apply for the astronaut program," Helms said. "So [Covey] was a big motivator in getting me to fill out the application and send it in."

Helms was selected by NASA for the astronaut program in January 1990 and became an astronaut in July 1991. Her first mission, on board Space Shuttle Endeavor, was in January 1993. She flew three more shuttle missions in 1994, 1996 and 2000.

It was not until she became the first woman to live on the International Space Station in 2001 that she felt like a pioneer, she said. Helms and her ISS crewmates, Voss and Russian cosmonaut Yury Usachev, were the first mixed-gender crew to live together for six months.

During the ISS mission, Helms' entire life was up in space. She did not have an Earth address anymore, as she had packed up and stored all of her possessions. "I was very disconnected from Earth," she said.

"When we had to go fly for six months, I effectively just closed down my Earth life. I acted like it was a military deployment," said Helms. "I lived in space. It was my home."

Her life in space did not exempt her from home improvement chores or having guests drop by to visit. Helms and Voss performed their world-record space walk while installing hardware on the laboratory module of the space station. Her crew welcomed a visiting Russian space crew that included the first space tourist.

After nearly six months aboard the ISS, it was time to return to Earth. As a veteran of five space flights totaling 211 days in space, Helms realized it was time to step aside and give others the opportunity to fly in space. The ISS mission was to be her last space flight.

With 22 years of military service, Helms could have retired after her astronaut career, as most military astronauts do. Instead, she chose to return to the active-duty Air Force.

"The Air Force has always been so supportive of the things I wanted to do, and I guess I felt the time had come to come back and help with the military space program," she said.

She will always feel deep ties to her NASA family, she said. Those ties become evident when she talks about the Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

"It's a devastating event for the entire NASA family," Helms said. "The focus is on the astronauts, but the truth of the matter is that there are thousands of others who are equally devastated. The ground crew that works with the Columbia vehicle -- I can't even imagine how they feel. The people in mission control who work the missions hour by hour, looking at the data, wondering if they missed something. The folks who trained the crew; they worked with them for three years. They were like family. The whole extended NASA family is just devastated."

Helms agrees with President Bush and NASA that the space program must continue.

"This loss won't change the way human beings are wired, so I'm sure that the human race's desire for exploration will be all it will take to get the program moving forward again," she said. (Courtesy of AFSPC News Service)

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