The first female shuttle commander, the first female space tourist and other female trailblazers gathered Friday to encourage girls to pave the way to space.
"It's just not a crazy thing anymore to have women flying in space," said retired astronaut Eileen Collins, who commanded two shuttle flights. "It's just normal and it's accepted."
Discovery's commander, Pamela Melroy, and the international space station's first female skipper, Peggy Whitson, are the first women to be in charge of two spacecraft at the same time.
Melroy and Whitson are showing it does not matter whether someone is male or female, "it's how you do the job and your dedication to the mission," Collins said.
"I'd fly with them any day," she added.
Nearly 400 girls packed an IMAX theater at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for the pioneering women of aerospace forum, part of an expo celebrating NASA's 50th birthday in just under a year.
Joining Collins on the stage was Kathryn Sullivan, NASA's first female spacewalker; Iran-born businesswoman Anousheh Ansari, who paid a reported $20 million (13.81 million EUR) for a Russian rocket ride to the space station last year; the first female pilot for the Air Force Thunderbirds and the first female solo pilot for the air demonstration squadron; and a high-ranking Federal Aviation Administration official.
Sullivan told the young audience - a sea of green vests decorated with scouting patches - to ignore the inevitable naysayers in the ever-present peanut gallery.
She recalled that when she was graduating from high school, some of her friends told her that when they were younger they would deliberately switch the conversation to baby dolls every time she mentioned airplanes.
"They thought they'd eventually get me over it," Sullivan said with a smile.
Collins said she never told anyone she wanted to be an astronaut when she was young.
"I was afraid they were going to say, 'You can't do that, you're a girl,' " she said. "So I just never told anybody and, in my own plan, I went out and did it."
The six panelists talked about how they set their sights early on, sometimes stumbled onto their interests, and overcame stereotyping and adversity. The two Thunderbird pilots, performing at the weekend expo, provided a glimpse into their jobs.
"What's really neat is in 3 1/2 hours I'm going to be going 500 mph three feet away from some other people," said Air Force Maj. Nicole Malachowski.
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