by Desiree N. Palacios
Air Force News Service
3/26/2013 - 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
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.
In 1988, she would spend the year attending test pilot school at Edwards
AFB, Calif., where she would graduate as a distinguished graduate and
earn the R.L. Jones award for outstanding flight test engineer. Helms
would then spend more than two years as a flight test engineer with the
CF-18 at Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada.
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
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. Helms and her team gathered data about the Earth's troposphere and
stratosphere, and deployed and retrieved the SPARTAN-201, a free-flying
satellite that investigated the physics of the solar corona and the
testing of a new spacewalk maneuvering device.
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. The mission included studies by 10
nations and five space agencies and was the first mission to combine a
full microgravity studies, as well as a comprehensive life science
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
In June of 2006, she was appointed a brigadier general and became
commander of the 45th Space Wing and Director, Eastern Range, Patrick
AFB, Fla. As the wing commander, she was responsible for the processing
and launch of U.S. Government and commercial satellites from Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
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.