The space shuttle program formally launched on January 5, 1972 as President Nixon announced that NASA would proceed with the development of a reusable space shuttle system. Space had always been part of the United States Air Force Academy curriculum. In fact, as early as 1965, the school offered a major in astronautical engineering—one of the few accredited undergraduate astronautics programs in the nation—as well as a space physics focus and an interdisciplinary space operations major, and Academy graduates have participated in all aspects of space shuttle missions, from piloting shuttles to serving as payload and mission specialists.
Col. Karol Bobko, Class of 1959, was the first graduate in space, piloting the space shuttle Challenger in April, 1983. And Maj. Susan J. Helms, Class of 1980, was the first female graduate to fly in space as a mission specialist aboard Endeavor in 1993. To date, 39 Academy graduates have become astronauts for NASA, producing the second highest number of astronauts next to the Naval Academy.
The most sweeping change since the Academy’s formation was the admission of women in 1976. The change was officially brought about by Public Law 94-106, signed by President Gerald Ford on October 7, 1975. Anticipating the requirement, Lt. Gen. Albert P. Clark directed extensive planning for the incorporation of women before he retired in 1974.
On June 28, 1976, a group of 157 pioneering women joined the Cadet Wing. Thanks to then-Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. James R. Allen and his relentlessly optimistic leadership, the incorporation and transition was relatively smooth. Ninety-seven of the original female cadets completed the program and graduated on May 28, 1980.
Academy graduates have achieved honors in countless areas of government and private industry. The following are just some of our notable graduates.
Chad Hennings, Class of 1988, won multiple national awards during his football career at the Academy. He went on to play in the National Football League with the Dallas Cowboys, winning three Super Bowls. During Desert Storm, Hennings flew attack and support missions in the A-10 Thunderbolt.
First Lt. Laura A. Piper, Class of 1992, was the first female graduate to die in a combat zone and the first to receive the Purple Heart. Piper was killed April 14, 1994 when she was a passenger in a helicopter that was shot down in a friendly fire incident over northern Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Bradley C. Hosmer, a member of the first graduating class in 1959, was the first Academy graduate to be named superintendent of the school, serving from 1991-94. He was responsible for the creation of the Center for Character Development (CCLD), which oversees and coordinates character training and education.
Heather Wilson, Class of 1982, was a distinguished graduate who went on to attend Oxford University, earning a Doctorate of Philosophy in International Relations. Wilson became the first Academy graduate to become a member of Congress. From 1998-2009, she served as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives for New Mexico.
The first graduating class to include female cadets was the Class of 1980