Susan Helms is a former NASA Astronaut and Retired Lieutenant General in the United States Air Force.
Full list of 2018 Colorado Women's Hall of Fame inductees
The following is a transcript of a conversation she had with a representative of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame shortly after learning of her induction.
QUESTION: How do each of these specific accomplishments add to the frame or lens of understanding your background and defining who you are?
1) Being an Air Force Academy cadet in the first class that admitted women, helping to break down barriers to make it more possible for women to attend academies and pursue degrees in aeronautical engineering and related fields?
SUSAN: From a very young age, I wanted to be in the military. I liked the opportunities and the ability to travel. Moving around as kid in a military family was our lifestyle and the culture suited me. My dad was a military pilot, had enormous pride in his daughters, and believed women should receive equal pay for equal work. I loved math and science at a young age, was pretty good in English, but didn't enjoy what I called the 'fuzzy' subjects like history and social studies. In school, I was all about math, science and nature. At the age of 11, I watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon, and the enormity of the adventure made a big impact on me.
I had a wonderful guidance counselor in the 1970s, whom I still hear from today. She took me under her wing and helped me realize what was out there. It’s such a critical mentoring step, capturing the attention of young women and making them realize that they can do anything. Unlike the experience of many other girls at that age, I don’t remember being told that there were limits to what women could do; if I was, I just didn't believe them. In junior high, most of my math and science teachers were female, and so it didn't make sense to me to hear that women weren’t good at math and science. And I remember having a belief, even at that age, that a woman could be President, which meant to me that women could do pretty much anything.
In 1971, my dad, knowing that I had an interest in joining the Air Force like he did, mentioned the Air Force Academy, an institution that provided both a highquality education and a commission for the Air Force. But unfortunately, he said, women were not allowed to attend, a fact I found very irritating. Four years later, my mom read an article in Parade magazine that Congress had just changed the law to include women as cadets, and that the academies were rushing the process to get women into the very next class, which coincidentally matched up with my own schedule for attending college. I immediately decided to apply. My dad and I started a fitness program, and went through the application paperwork. We sent Air Force Academy application packages to both Oregon senators and my congressman (OR-03). Ultimately, I was nominated to the Academy by Senator Mark Hatfield. Of note, I never met him until after my first space flight and it was a joy to finally connect with someone who had such a hand in my success.
Of the 157 women selected, 154 showed up, and 97 graduated. That was a pretty good retention rate and higher than men for that year. Several of my older female classmates were already in a college program, but chose to start over and complete the full four years in Academy. It was a special bonding experience, being in that first class, and we called ourselves the ‘80s Ladies’, a play on the fact that our graduation year was 1980. I focused on engineering as a college major, and ultimately was designated as an aeronautical engineer by the Air Force. At that moment in time, there was a national wave of opportunities opening for women. For example, right after we entered the Academy, the Air Force decided to send women to pilot training, and NASA decided to include women in their next class of astronauts (1978). It seemed like doors were opening for us at just the moment we were ready to step through them.
2) Being the first military woman in space?
SUSAN: Timing is everything, and is such a big part of my story. The first women were accepted to the NASA program in 1978, or Group 8 (John Glenn was in Group 1). I applied for the NASA class of 1990 or Group 13. Up to that point, NASA had never selected women from the military for the Astronaut program, but that year they selected 3, two from the Air Force and one from the Army. All three of us had very strong resumes in military flight test, and to this day military women remain very competitive. And so opening those doors in the mid-1970s led to competitive resumes in the early-1990s and beyond. I think any of the three of us could have been the first to fly, but through sheer luck it turned out to be me. The female Army astronaut flew just 3 months later.
I want to give a shout-out to Kathy Sullivan, one of the original six women in Group 8. She was a reservist in the Navy but not on active reserve status during her flight. She flew in space as a civilian NASA employee, so in full disclosure, it’s a bit of a technicality that I’m listed as being the first military woman to fly in space. And the Russians, of course, included military women in space missions in the 1960s, well before the Americans.
- Holding the record for the longest spacewalk?
SUSAN: Timing, timing, timing. I was assigned to a spacewalk in 2001, along with my crewmate, Jim Voss. Spacewalks are generally 6 to 7 hours and highly choreographed, as you must make the most of the time you have. Our spacewalk lasted 8 hours, 56 minutes. Why so long? NASA had decided to berth a new module to the Space Station using a robotic arm, and there was some uncertainty that the new berthing procedure would be fully successful. They wanted us to wait out in space to make sure module would have a successful berth. NASA had done robotic berthing in the past, but had never berthed this particular type of module before. If it was unsuccessful, the backup plan was to have the two of us manually maneuver the module into place. When we were done with our defined tasks, we then waited while the crew inside the Space Shuttle attempted the robotic berthing operation. After about 90 minutes, it was deemed successful, and we were directed to terminate the spacewalk.
The oxygen supply of the space suit generally lasts about 7 1/2 - 8 hours. The carbon dioxide removal on the space suit was good for 9-10 hours, and so the key limiting consumable was the oxygen. When the time came to wait for the robotic operation, we attached oxygen hoses from the airlock to our suits so that we would have a continuing supply. While we waited, we looked at the earth, but didn’t talk at all, because NASA was focused on communicating with the inside crew about the robotics. Obviously we didn't want to interfere, so we used sign language just between the two of us, like a happy ‘thumbs up’ or pointing to something on the Earth.
Believe it or not, in this 24/7, social media world, we didn’t find out until six months later about the world record. When we arrived back on Earth after the mission, Jim and I waded through our inboxes of both letters and emails, and both of us found envelopes from Guinness Book of World Records at the bottom of our mail inbox piles. It turns out that the reason we hold that record relates to how the duration of a spacewalk measured. The marker Guinness uses is based on how long the space suit itself runs on the space suit battery. Although we were connected to the oxygen supply while we waited, we had not re-connected our suits to the airlock power supply until it was time to come in, and by that measure, we hold the record for the longest space walk. And we found out about it because Guinness sent those letters.
- Embracing STEM and your 'inner geek"? Nomination says you "Happily describing herself as a total geek"
SUSAN: I thoroughly enjoy my participation in the Association of Space Explorers. Not only do I stay connected with astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world, our annual conferences also incorporate STEM outreach throughout the host country. It has given me a chance to recently reach students in China, Sweden, Austria and France.
Growing up, no one ever said I was limited because I was a girl, which I now realize was very unique. And if I were born four decades later, I might have been a cyber expert instead of an engineer. I think women in engineering writ large are doing okay, and NASA has clearly been an outstanding model for promoting diversity. But I have concerns about the progress of women in IT. We clearly still need to break through some cultural barriers there.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about becoming a leader to over 20,000 military personnel at Vandenberg?
SUSAN: I think your question relates to being successful in a male dominated military? What I found helpful was to approach the introduction of women in the workplace through lens of communication and experience issues, versus misogyny. Eventually, I discovered that if you remain highly credible you can generally overcome the biases that exist. It’s particularly effective in a small group situation. If you start with accusing someone of bias with a posture that "they are wrong" you won't get very far. If, however, you start with the premise that they just lack knowledge and education about the contributions of women, you can expose others to new, positive experiences with diversity in the workplace and change their perspectives. It also helps to be really good at what you do, and have experience working in the field. That goes a long way toward dissipating their concerns. And there are definitely men out there who are rooting for you to succeed.
But when you run into the occasional true misogynist, versus what I would call a male co-worker with a lack of experience with diversity, call them what they are. Race is another area where you see this. It’s important for all of us to see the difference between those who lack exposure on how to appropriately work with diversity versus those with deep-seated, evil intent. I can count those bad actors that I’ve directly encountered in the workplace on one or two hands. It’s a small minority.
QUESTION: Describe your passion about helping others, especially women, in the workplace. In particular, you led important efforts working with the Pentagon to support victims of sexual assault.
SUSAN: As a senior officer, I often had responsibilities to lead sexual assault training for the troops. Of course, through the process of executing the training, you learn a lot about the impact on people who have suffered the crime. It was constantly devastating to hear about the stories of victims and what they were put through.
The #MeToo revolution of today has exposed very publicly how the powerful have preyed on the vulnerable, but the phenomenon of sexual predation was something I learned about years ago though my military experience. It became a crusade to figure out how to identify predators in the ranks and root them out. Prevention of the crime through bystander intervention also had tremendous focus.
Later, as a senior Commander, I was very tough on sexual assault within the military court system. I usually elevated every legitimate complaint to a courtmartial. It was my strong belief that we needed the full testimony of both the accuser and the accused under oath to understand what happened, and short of a court martial, you often don't get all of the information available. Even though it was always very difficult for all involved, because courts martial are public affairs within the military culture, these types of cases had such a destructive power on people's lives that they were worth the full scrutiny of the law.
In the military justice system, Commanders, not juries, disposition the outcomes of a military trial. A Commander cannot overturn a finding of 'not guilty' but a Commander can reduce the punishment of a 'guilty’ finding or award clemency. In one famous sexual assault case that I had referred to trial, the accused was found guilty in spite of a lack of required judicial evidence. I deliberated for five long weeks, reading every word of the trial record, and ultimately decided not to concur with the guilty finding and levied a lesser charge of ‘Indecent Conduct’ on the accused that carried a lower standard of evidence. It was a searing reminder that our military justice system has to be fair to both the victims and the accused.
QUESTION: You also have dedicated your time in recent years to the role of women in corporate boards.
SUSAN: This is a new space for me, and I decided to get involved because diversity of thought is important. One of things that makes our country great is our power of diversity. It has made the military more effective and across the government, our public discourse has been better served. It is very common knowledge that women have been very effective in the business and financial world, and Corporate America can and should leverage that strength as with any other sector of society. Group-think is not healthy in any environment. Diversity of thought and perspective adds strength to your team, whether in a space shuttle or in the corporate boardroom.
Today's girls and women generally have the same concerns of my generation - it's amazing how much has changed and yet how certain issues remain enduring. It proves the point that a positive culture for women is something that constantly needs attention. I recognize I’m at a point in my career where it's easy to speak up and younger women may not be there yet. Sharing my coping strategies with them is one way to remain useful.
QUESTION: Speaking of younger women, what will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
SUSAN: The challenge for millennials is getting engaged. It’s important to realize that we are who we are in this country because people have always been engaged on issues of great importance, and made sacrifices to ensure that changes occur for the better. For example, women in this country did not have had the right to vote 100 years ago. Today our right to vote is taken for granted, and yet it came about only because of incredible engagement by people who took on the task of amending the Constitution. The 1960s were also a golden age of the advancement of civil liberty and equality, brought on in large part because of a heavily engaged youth culture. It’s important the young people of today remember that you don't get to the top of a mountain by dropping down from above. If you want things to be better, harness the power of engagement and never give up.
QUESTION: What is your favorite quote?
SUSAN: “Success is not defined by the destination that you chose, but by the journey that you take to get there.”
The Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame was created to recognize, honor and preserve the contributions of trailblazing Colorado women. Both historical and contemporary women have shared foresight, vision and accomplishment, but lacked a forum for recognition. Since 1985, the Hall has inducted 152 extraordinary women who have been outstanding in their field, elevated the status of women, helped open new frontiers for women or inspired others by their example. Inductees include scientists, teachers, social activists, philanthropists, authors, business leaders, elected officials and more.