by Pat Baillie | With the shuttle Atlantis launching last week, I have been reflecting on my history and what got me here. The shuttle program actually had a lot to do with that.
When I entered the Air Force in 1978, I just wanted to be a women’s coach at the Air Force Academy. I was a Physical Education teacher (now there’s a stereotype for you!), and wanted to teach at the college level. Several of my ex-students had entered the first women’s class at the Academy, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I ended up joining the Air Force, without a guaranteed job, and started off on my next career–a chance to work at Johnson Space Center on the Space Shuttle in 1983. I never would have dreamed that this was a place I would end up working as a mission planner, but it was an amazing assignment.
I grew up knowing Sputnik, Mercury and Apollo. I watched the first moon walk in high school. And, now, here I was working at Mission Control in Houston! The job was challenging and the people were great. I worked in the building with the astronaut’s offices, and sat in front of an outside window on the first floor. Many times, we were mistaken for the astronauts as tourists walked by the building.
I had been involved in the LGBT community for about 10 years at this point but mostly as a community member, working on supporting LGBT service members through an informal network of support. I didn’t really consider myself a leader in LGBT causes, and felt I could easily co-exist as an officer and a lesbian. That all changed for me in Houston.
My partner and I decided to have a child in 1985. We had been together for 6 years at this point, and were ready to add to our family. Being active duty military, there was one problem: I couldn’t use my military benefits to support my partner. My partner was a student, and we were lucky that Houston had an incredible county health program, and my son was born at the local county hospital. I didn’t receive any additional benefits for him, but we figured we would make due, although economics were going to be a challenge. Three months later, my partner was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was fast-moving, and she had to go into surgery right away. I worked the launch of one more mission and then I took her to the hospital for surgery the next day.
The launch that January 1986 was Challenger, and suddenly I was dealing with the death of friends and co-workers, a 3-month old baby, and a partner with cancer. I can clearly remember sitting in the hospital with no support from my military team members and no benefits, realizing how unfair and wrong this system was. I needed help, and thankfully I could turn to my LGBT community. I grew up that day, and began to use those experiences towards my activism and passion for ending LGBT oppression in the workplace and as a community.
So today, as the last shuttle lands, I am thankful for my life experiences and opportunities that were created as being part of the shuttle program. I also know that the whole push for space exploration won’t end, nor will my drive to find the next step for equality.