Veteran astronauts inducted into US Astronaut Hall of Fame

Pamela Melroy, Scott Kelly and Michael Lopez-Alegria inducted Saturday

Scenes from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Heroes and Legends exhibit. (Image: Adrianna Iwasinski/News 6)

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. – Though it’s been years since she’s flown in space, Pamela Melroy will never forget flying over the Earth at night, seeing the lights of cities miles below “spread out like diamonds on black velvet.”

“I thought about that for a while and I realized how many times I had wanted to see the space shuttle go overhead and I would always wave if I saw it go overhead,” Melroy said. When she checked the map, she saw they were over China, a place she’d never visited. “But I thought, ‘I bet down there somewhere, there’s a little girl who’s waving up at me,’ so I waved back.”

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Melroy, one of the three 2020 inductees into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, grew up dreaming of becoming an astronaut, despite the lack of women in the field at the time. With lifelong encouragement from her parents, she pursued her passion and became one of only two women to have commanded a space shuttle, logging more than 38 days in space and serving as pilot on two flights and mission commander on STS-120 in 2007. These three flights were assembly missions to build the International Space Station.

She was sworn in as NASA’s deputy administrator June 21.

The induction ceremony was held Saturday morning at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit.

Melroy, Michael Lopez-Alegria and Scott Kelly made up the class of 2020 inductees. The three were originally set to be inducted into the hall of fame last year, but the ceremony was postponed until this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The three make up the 19th class of space shuttle astronauts inducted into the hall of fame.

From playing rocket ship to serving in space

A number of former astronauts and NASA officials spoke at the ceremony, including NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida; Hortense Blackwell, director of communications and public engagement; Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex; and Curt Brown, a shuttle astronaut and U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame class of 2013 inductee who also is chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s board of directors.

“Astronauts cement America’s reputation as a beacon of discovery,” Nelson said as he described how the three inductees helped further NASA’s mission of exploration and discovery.

“It goes without saying, but it is a huge honor and privilege to be inducted into this pantheon of American heroes,” Lopez-Alegria said.

Lopez-Alegria flew four space flights and served in positions such as director of operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia; leader of the International Space Station Operations branch of the Astronaut Office; and technical liaison to the Johnson Space Center’s Extravehicular Activity Office.

He is currently the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation in Washington, D.C.

He spoke of “playing rocket ship” in his bedroom closet as a kid and of hearing the news of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 as he played on the beach as an 11-year-old, saying it was “transformational.”

“Those of us being inducted today stand on the shoulders of you who have come before us,” he said. “It is truly an honor, and we take very seriously our solemn duty to bear the weight of those who come after us.”

Kelly, who holds the record for time in orbit by a U.S. astronaut and has logged more than 520 days in space, said he never thought he would be an astronaut as a kid who struggled to pay attention in school both growing up and in college.

However, when he was in college, he read about the first couple of space missions and decided he wanted to become a pilot and maybe eventually travel to space.

“For me, (making that decision) was a bunch of much more smaller, manageable steps supported all the way by other people,” he said. “What I’ve learned in my career and life is that making giant leaps requires small, manageable steps and the help of a lot of people along the way, including many in this room.”

He went on to serve as space shuttle pilot on STS-103 in 1999 and mission commander on STS-118 in 2007.