Along with the obvious thrill of launching into space, astronaut Shannon Walker's flight to the space station next year will hold a sentimental and historical significance. Flying alongside Walker will be the watch of Amelia Earhart, the legendary aviator who was the first woman to fly as a passenger across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart later became the first woman to pilot a plane across that same ocean in a solo flight.
Earhart was one of the first female pilots best known for her two trans-Atlantic flights. She was also a charter member and the first president of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of licensed women pilots from 35 countries that has more than 5,500 members worldwide. While there are other female pilot organizations in various states and countries, nearly all women of achievement in aviation are past or current members of The Ninety-Nines. Walker is among those women.
Earhart wore the watch during her two trans-Atlantic flights, "one as a passenger and one as a solo flight," said Joan Kerwin, director of The Ninety-Nines and member for 39 years.
When asked how she feels about the watch flying into space, Kerwin described it as "kind of scary in a way and Amelia is such an icon with women in aviation and now with women in space. We are thrilled that Shannon is a Ninety-Nine and will be taking Amelia into space with her."
Kerwin presented the watch to Walker at Ellington Field in Houston on Oct. 22.
H. Gordon Selfridge Jr. gave Earhart a watch in one of his shops in America. In return, she gave him the watch she wore on her two trans-Atlantic flights.
"Shortly after Amelia disappeared the watch was given (by H. Gordon Selfridge Jr.) to Fay Gillis Wells, a charter member of The Ninety-Nines, and she kept it in her Washington, D.C., apartment until she founded the Forest of Friendship to honor other individuals in aviation. She needed funds for the Forest of Friendship in Amelia's hometown of Atchison, Kan., so the watch was auctioned off," said Kerwin, who bought the watch at the auction.
"She is a fascinating lady," Walker said in regard to Earhart.
A licensed pilot since 1995, Walker learned to fly in a Cessna 150. Her grandmother served as an air traffic controller at William P. Hobby airport in Houston and had a private pilot's license. Walker's mother also was a pilot.
"One thing I really like about flying is that it is an activity that my mother and I can do together," Walker said. "There is something quite special about getting into a plane with my mother and going somewhere."
Walker said "it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time," regarding her inspiration to become a pilot.
At age 30 Walker flew her first solo flight which was "the required short flight as part of pilot training." Earhart was 24 years old when she flew her first solo flight in 1921.
Recognizing the significance of Earhart's watch going into space with her, Walker says she is "very excited and honored to fly the watch" and hopes "that by flying the watch people will become interested in the continuing story of women in aviation, and perhaps draw some new pilots to the field."
Walker shares some words of inspiration for women in aviation: "If you work hard, the things to which you aspire can happen. Flying gives me a tremendous sense of freedom and I hope that anyone who wishes to learn has the opportunity to do so."
Along with the watch, another personal belonging of Earhart's will soon fly into space. Astronaut Randy Bresnik, grandson of Earhart's only authorized photographer, will take a scarf of Amelia's with him aboard space shuttle Atlantis as part of STS-129, scheduled to launch in November 2009.
Once the watch comes back to Earth from being in orbit with Walker next year it will be put on display in The Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City.