At 5:31 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2018, the engines on the Russian Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft roared to life on a launch pad in Kazakhstan. As bright orange flames erupted from the engines, the spacecraft lifted off the ground and began its journey to the International Space Station.Dressed in a white and blue spacesuit, Army astronaut Lt. Col. Anne McClain sat in the windowless capsule along with a Russian cosmonaut and a Canadian astronaut. It was her first launch, and she says at first it felt like she was in the simulator where she’d spent countless hours preparing for this moment. Then the spacecraft started to rumble as the engines ignited and it hit her that, “Oh gosh, this is different. This is the real day.”Eight minutes after ignition, the third and final stage of the engine came off the vehicle and threw the three passengers forward. McClain’s stomach flipped and she felt like she was upside down. Just minutes after sitting on a launch pad in Asia, she and her crewmates were already in orbit more than 200 miles above the Earth. This, she realized, is what weightlessness felt like.Then the shrouds covering the capsule’s windows came off and a view she’d been looking forward to since she was 3 years old came into view.“I look out and for the first time I see a sunrise over the Earth, just 8 1/2 minutes after sitting on the launch pad, and what an amazing kind of transition in your mind of where you are,” McClain said.McClain is a Class of 2002 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, where the history department is fond of saying, “Much of the history we teach was made by people we taught.” After learning about famous members of the Long Gray Line at the academy, McClain was now making history of her own.A West Point graduate first flew to space in 1965, when Frank Borman launched aboard Gemini 7. He was followed by graduates who flew on Apollo missions, walked on the moon and launched to the International Space Station aboard space shuttles, but until that December day in 2018, no female graduate of the academy had ever left Earth behind and traveled to space.Women were first admitted to West Point in 1976 and in May 1980, 62 graduated, forever changing the academy. In the 39 years since, 5,140 women have added their names to the Register of Graduates and joined the Long Gray Line that stretches back to 1802.McClain is the lone astronaut among the group, but the women of West Point have made their mark both in the Army and on the country as a whole. They have led the Corps of Cadets as the first captain, and also served as the commandant and dean at the academy.They have led Soldiers as generals and started multi-million-dollar corporations. They have proved their toughness by earning Ranger and Sapper tabs—and in some cases both. Four of them—Jaimie Leonard, Laura Walker, Emily Perez and Sara Cullen—have given their lives in service of the United States.As West Point Class of 1980 graduate Sue Fulton said, they have changed the world.“I decided I was going to love it”Out of the more than 5,000 women who have graduated from West Point, one has been able to break through to become a senior leader in the Army. Retired Lt. Gen. Nadja West, who graduated from West Point in 1982, spent the final years of her Army career as the 44th U.S. Army Surgeon General and the commander of U.S. Army Medical Command.West, the first black woman to become a three-star general in the Army, is the highest-ranking female to have graduated from West Point.In 1939, her father boarded a train and traveled to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, in part because it was a free train ride with his friend. The Army was still segregated at the time and the base in Arizona was where the Buffalo Soldiers were based and the “colored troops” had to go to get trained. During his time in Arizona, West said her dad saw the white Soldiers training them go from thinking of the black Soldiers as others to embracing them as fellow Soldiers. The change gave him hope, and he served for 33 years and encouraged his children to do the same.West’s sisters would serve in the Women’s Army Corps, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Navy as women were slowly integrated into the Armed Forces. Her brother, James Grammer, set a path she eventually followed and graduated from West Point in 1976, the last graduating class to attend a male only academy. Two years after his graduation, West arrived at West Point as the minority of the minority as a black female cadet.As a member of the third class to include women, West said she was able to look at the women in the classes of 1980 and 1981 and pull encouragement from the fact that they had survived. The women in the upper classes also worked to toughen up the naïve 17-year-old girl, who was getting yelled at for the first time in her life, being called cruel names she says she didn’t even understand at the time, and was liable to cry at the drop of a hat.“The guys would come and yell and then I'd start crying,” West said. “One of (the Class of 1980 women) said, ‘You've got to stop that because you’re making us all look bad.’ They were trying to say you’ve got to be tough because everyone's watching you and then your actions reflect on all of us.”A third generation of her family recently began serving in the military as her son, Logan West, followed in her footsteps and graduated from West Point in the Class of 2019. Four decades after his mom entered the academy, he attended a place that had drastically changed. Women now make up nearly a quarter of the Corps and they are allowed to enter any branch they choose. The change was brought home to West when she asked him what it was like being at the academy with women and he couldn’t even grasp what it would be like without them. It was all he knew.“They’re cadets. They’re not black cadets, or white cadets or female cadets, they’re cadets,” West said. “We still identify. We still count. Unfortunately, that’s human. That’s the American society. We have to put a person in a box and categorize them. But, it’s great just to see that it’s no big deal.”The list of female West Point graduates leading at the Army’s senior levels might be short, but in recent years women have taken on major leadership roles at West Point itself by serving as both Commandant of Cadets and Dean of the Academic Board.Future Commandant Maj. Gen. Diana Holland graduated from West Point in 1990, a decade after the first class with women, but her infatuation with the academy had started years before. Her father and grandfather had both served in the Marines and—at the age of 6—Holland decided she too would one day serve in the military. From a young age her father had told her she could be anything she wanted, and although she admits serving in the military might not have been what he had in mind, he supported her from the start and suggested she one day became an officer.Her vague goal of serving in the military turned into a crystalized plan when she was 10 after an encyclopedia introduced her to West Point for the first time. The photos of the granite walls, the Hudson River and its reputation as the most challenging sold her on West Point being the place for her.“I was completely taken by it and it captured my imagination,” Holland said.In junior high school, she somehow got hold of an application to the academy and began charting her course. She joined a softball team before eventually playing basketball in high school—even if it might not have been the right sport for someone who was only 5-foot-1—because being an athlete would make her more competitive when she applied to West Point. She also joined the JROTC program in high school, through which she eventually got her nomination to the academy.Thirty-five years later, Holland can still remember the day the envelope came in the mail with her appointment to West Point. Standing in the same room as her dad, they both held their breath as she opened the envelope, pulled out a vinyl folder and read that she had been accepted to the academy’s Class of 1990.“It was an emotional moment. I'll just put it that way. It was amazing,” Holland said.She arrived at the academy having already practiced how to report to the cadet in the red sash on Reception Day and with some of the new cadet knowledge already committed to memory. But despite her years of preparation, Beast Barracks still proved to be challenging and made her start to question whether West Point was the place for her after all.At the beginning of the academic year, as doubts continued to creep into her mind, Holland found herself standing on the Plain along with her company for a cadet parade. As she marched at the back of the formation, the upperclass cadet behind her began to yell at her to keep up with the line in front of her because, much like basketball, parade marching can be challenging for someone barely over 5-feet-tall.Then they turned down the straightaway for the review. A crowd sat in the stands on her right, the Hellcats were playing loudly for the cadets and spectators to hear, and directly in front of her the American flag flew high above Trophy Point. That is when it sunk in. This is where she had wanted to be since she was 6 years old. She didn’t have to do it. She had the privilege of being there.“At that moment, I decided I was going to love it,” Holland said. “I was going to embrace every day because not very many people get that opportunity. I wasn't going to complain about it.”Holland graduated in 1990 with a degree in history and branched engineers. From the moment she received her diploma and set off on her Army career, she knew she wanted to return to the academy as a professor, which she did from 1999-2002. After her time as a professor, she went to Fort Stewart, then U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. She also made a stop in Hawaii and the Pentagon, with multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq mixed in, before finding herself at Fort Drum wearing the star of a brigadier general.In December 2015, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno informed her that her next post would be as Commandant of Cadets at West Point, marking the first time a woman would hold the position.“I said, ‘Sir, are you serious?’” Holland recalled. “He just said ‘Yes, I’m serious,’ and he turned around and he walked away. It was stunning.”Holland’s goal after graduating was to return to the academy as a professor so she could give back to a place that had a profound impact on her life, but, she said, she never expected to be back as a senior leader.In that role, she was able to make an indelible mark on the academy.One of those marks was pushing for boxing to be taught to women for the first time, starting with the Class of 2020. The Secretary of Defense had decided requirements should be the same for men and women, Holland said, and boxing stood out as something that still needed to be integrated. So, she made it happen.“I hope to inspire people, whether it’s men or women or cadets, or Soldiers or officers or whomever,” Holland said. “I am passionate about my service. My goal is to help create an environment where people can achieve their potential and reach their dreams. That’s what I do in this job. That’s what I tried to look for ways to do at West Point and anywhere I go.”Holland served as commandant until the summer of 2017 and then became the commander of the South Atlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She was promoted to major general in 2019 and, in three years with USACE, has had to oversee responses to multiple major hurricanes that have severely damaged Puerto Rico and the Florida panhandle.“I think it is a great place for women and any person of any background. We compete,” Holland said. “My experience has been it’s the most inclusive, team-oriented organization that I could be a part of. I think that is a powerful message for America’s youth, particularly women.”Thirty years into her Army career, that feeling from the Plain has never left her and she said she plans to continue to serve until the day the Army tells her it has no more room for her, because every step of the way she has found it to be the, “most egalitarian, merit based profession” available. Whether it is during her career or after she retires, she wants to help other women learn that about the Army.“I think it is a great place for women and any person of any background. We compete,” Holland said. “My experience has been it’s the most inclusive, team-oriented organization that I could be a part of. I think that is a powerful message for America’s youth, particularly women.”Holland started her term as commandant in December 2015, becoming the first woman to hold a senior leader position at West Point. Her stint as the sole female on the leadership team was short-lived, though, as Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb was named Dean of the Academic Board in June 2016 after serving as the head of the Department of Social Sciences.Jebb grew up only 30 minutes south of West Point but admits she knew almost nothing about the academy until she stumbled upon an article highlighting West Point’s first women’s basketball team in a women’s sports magazine she subscribed to. The article talked about the values instilled in cadets while they are at West Point, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than herself immediately spoke to her.She graduated high school in 1978 and enrolled at the academy as part of only the third class to include women, along with West. She arrived at a time when women were still sparsely spread throughout the Corps of Cadets. Jebb’s cadet company, for instance, had women from her own class in it and some from the Class of 1980, but none from the Class of 1981.Jebb found her place at the academy through athletics. While it was the basketball team that had originally attracted her to West Point, after arriving she played on the volleyball team instead. There, she was able to find a semblance of community.Being on the team awarded her once in a lifetime opportunities such as playing in the first volleyball match between West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy. It also was a chance to break away from the stress and struggles of cadet life, especially those that came with being a woman at an academy still adjusting to their existence. Much like the women in that first class, Jebb said her and her classmates’ cadet careers were still rife with challenges.Some of the more terrible things—such as sexual assaults—Jebb said she didn’t learn about until years after graduation as she continued to grow closer to her classmates through annual reunions. Even though she was never assaulted herself, looking back nearly 40 years since her graduation and talking about that time, she pauses and collects her thoughts before asserting, “I think it’s safe to say we were probably all sexually harassed. There wasn’t always a welcoming environment. I think people would tell you, there were a lot of times you were the only woman in the class and that kind of thing. It was different than it is today.”Jebb branched military intelligence after graduation and began her career with two goals in mind. She wanted to be a company commander and to return to West Point as a professor. Despite there being some tough experiences during her cadet career—the faculty had left an overwhelmingly positive impression on her, and she wanted to give back.She accomplished her first goal by becoming a company commander at Fort Hood, Texas. In 1992, she accomplished the second when she returned to the academy to teach international relations and comparative politics. Her career eventually took her away from the academy for a few years, but in 1998 she came back as senior faculty and has continued to serve there for most of the years since. She became the deputy head of the Department of Social Sciences in 2005 and was named department head in 2013.Then, in 2016, she was named the Dean of the Academic Board at West Point, becoming the first woman to hold the position. With Jebb as dean and Holland as commandant, the academy had taken a step that may not have seemed possible in 1976 when women first arrived as cadets.“We used to laugh that it was the only time that we had to make sure we had the right hat,” Jebb said. “I thought the institution didn’t blink to have two senior women in the leader team. That, to me, said a lot. Whatever talents that we both brought, that's what the institution wanted.”Jebb just finished her fourth academic year as a member of the senior leadership team and during that time she has worked to modernize the curriculum and class schedule. She has also helped the academy to have tough conversations about how women are treated at the academy, in the Army and in society as a whole, that no one was ready to have when she was a cadet. There is still room to grow, she admits, but considerable progress has been made in terms of diversity and the treatment of people of different sexes and races.“I talked about some tough times at the academy, but overall, I’ll always be indebted to this academy in terms of my own development and setting me up to be able to contribute to the Army,” Jebb said. “That’s what inspires me now. Making sure that we are developing our staff, faculty and cadets all with the eye on developing leadership of character for the country.”“Be the change you seek”Until Holland and Jebb stepped into their roles in 2015 and 2016, respectively, no woman had served as a senior leader at West Point. Only a decade after the first class of women graduated, however, a female cadet was chosen to lead the Corps of Cadets as first captain.Col. Kristin Baker, a member of the Class of 1990 along with Holland, took on the role in the summer of 1989 and led the Corps during her firstie year. The interviews for first captain took place at the end of the previous academic year, and she first realized she had a chance after being selected to command the second detail of Cadet Basic Training. But even with the potential on the horizon, there were people who still had doubts that the academy was ready for a female first captain, including Baker’s own father who had graduated from West Point in the Class of 1966, which was chronicled in the book “The Long Gray Line.”“I remember calling and asking my dad and I’m like, ‘Hey, dad, what do you think about a woman being the first captain?’ He said, ‘It’ll never happen. The academy’s not ready for it. That’s not going to happen,’” Baker recalled. “It wasn’t in my realm of expectation.”For most of high school, West Point itself wasn’t on her mind, let alone the fact that one day she would become the first female to lead the Corps. Although he was a grad, Baker’s father didn’t talk about the academy much. But during a family trip he made the decision to stop by the West Point Museum and she became fascinated by the academy and decided to apply. On a future visit to the academy, she had the chance to meet with the coach of the women’s soccer team, which was becoming an intercollegiate team the next season. The chance to play soccer at the collegiate level sold Baker once and for all on the academy, and she enrolled as a member of the Class of 1990.“I pick up this phone in the back of the limo and I am like 'Hey, mom and dad, you're never going to believe where I am,’” Baker said. “I remember my dad; he was just kind of stunned. I said, ‘So they decided I’m going to be first captain.’”Academy leadership might have proved Baker’s dad wrong when they chose her to be first captain, but—as Baker quickly found out after being selected—in many ways the academy wasn’t ready for the implications of the decision. They brought out a reporter from the New York Times to do a story and once it hit, the media storm began.Leading March Back from Lake Frederick as the commander of CBT II and newly named first captain, Baker turned down the road toward the superintendent’s house and found it lined with cameras and media. At the conclusion of the march, she was whisked from interview to interview, and the next morning she found herself in a limo headed to New York City to be featured on the national morning shows. She then realized she hadn’t even called home and told her parents about her new position.“I pick up this phone in the back of the limo and I am like 'Hey, mom and dad, you're never going to believe where I am,’” Baker said. “I remember my dad; he was just kind of stunned. I said, ‘So they decided I’m going to be first captain.’”The attention wouldn’t let up throughout her year leading the Corps, and Baker said it was only possible because she had a staff that was able to handle many of the day-to-day operations of running the Corps while she served as the face of the academy. Although she is sure there were some negative opinions of her having the position, both within the Corps and outside it, Baker said she did not experience much pushback and, for the most part, felt accepted by her fellow cadets.There were incredible high moments during that year such as meeting Ronald Reagan and Arthur Ashe. Then, as she entered the Army, Baker said she found that holding the position had been truly valuable. Even as a junior officer, she understood what went into the decision-making process at the highest levels and the amount of pressure they were under. She had sat in meetings at a young age where decisions were made that subordinates didn’t understand and was able to carry those lessons with her throughout her career.After graduation, she branched military intelligence and was stationed in Germany, her first of multiple stints in the country. Her career also took her to Texas, Hawaii and eventually the Pentagon from where she retired last week following a 30-year career.It was a career that took her around the world, but looking back at all she accomplished, Baker was cognizant that because of the time she joined the Army, not every door was open to her. Because certain branches were closed to her and other women, from the moment she entered the Army, Baker said she was aware she was a “second class citizen.” She could never hope to become chief of staff and lead the Army like she had the Corps because there was no available route to that job. At the time, she and other female officers weren’t even allowed to be division commanders, she said. So, instead of focusing on what she couldn’t be, she worked to become the best military intelligence officer she could be.Many of those paths that were closed to Baker and other women throughout the last 40 years have since been unblocked as women can now branch infantry and armor as well as attend Ranger School.“I think probably one of the best things that’s happened in the last 10 years was allowing women to compete to get into Ranger School,” Baker said. “Not everybody wants to do it, but guess what, that doesn’t mean that some people can’t. I just think that was a really important decision.“It’s such an amazing change to allow women to compete at that level,” she added. “I think a lot of people don’t understand the perspective that you have when you don’t even have an opportunity to compete for the highest levels of leadership in the Army.”Female cadets at West Point were first able to branch infantry and armor in the Class of 2016, a change Holland helped oversee as commandant. The new directive came after branches had already been assigned for the class, so Holland had to work with the Army to switch the branches for female cadets interested in following the newly available career paths.The gates to Ranger School had already been opened to women in September 2014, even though serving in the infantry was not yet an option for them. In early 2015, 19 women arrived ready to take on the challenge. Among them was a 37-year-old mother of two.Lt. Col. Lisa Jaster’s dad graduated from West Point in 1968, but it was not he who originally inspired her to look into the academy. It was Class of 1980 graduate Carol Barkalow, who first piqued Jaster’s interest.In 1990, Barkalow published the book “In the Men’s House,” which chronicled her time at West Point in the first class to include women and the first few years of her Army career. Soon after its publication, a copy founds its way into the hands of a 12-year-old junior high student living in a small town in Wisconsin.Before she read the book, Jaster was a dancer. After reading it, she traded in her ballet slippers for running shoes and basketball sneakers because she felt those activities aligned more with what West Point would be looking for in a future cadet.She also made sure her local congressman Tom Petri knew that he would be hearing from her when it was time for a nomination to the academy. Each year, starting in seventh grade and through her junior year of high school, Jaster cut out one of her school pictures and mailed it along with a letter to Petri’s office. She would talk some about Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, but mostly she wanted Petri to know that she was graduating from high school in 1996 and would be looking for a nomination to West Point when the time came. When Jaster arrived at his office for a nomination interview, Petri had each of her photos together in an envelope.She arrived at the academy on June 30, 1996, ending a six-year journey of preparation and embarking on a new one that would take her to South Korea, on multiple deployments to the Middle East and, eventually, to Ranger School as a 37-year-old member of the Reserve.Jaster graduated from West Point in the Class of 2000, the 20th to include women. In the two decades between the Class of 1980’s graduation and her own, the academy had already become a considerably more inclusive place for women, she said. It was apparent that women were still in the minority, which became most obvious when she was forced to play multiple intramural sports because the teams had to meet their quotas for female participants. But it was the differing standards of fitness expected of men and women that Jaster said she found she most disappointing.Jaster, who majored in civil engineering, branched engineers after graduation and started her career at Fort Stewart, Georgia. In 2002, she deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. If she had been her father’s son, Jaster guesses she would have more directly followed in his footsteps—branch armor, earn a Ranger tab and then try and go special forces. But as a female officer, she had to get creative in mapping out her career including becoming a company commander in an ordnance company because there were no positions open to women in the engineers when she was stationed in South Korea.She stayed on active duty until February 2007 before getting out of the Army to start a family. The plan was always to get back in, she said, and in 2012 she joined the Army Reserve as a captain. While serving in a Drilling Individual Mobilization Augmentee unit in 2014, one of those doors that had been closed to her was thrown open by her sergeant major, something she said she still has not forgiven him for.“He sent me an email and said, ‘Did you know that the Army put out that women can go to Ranger School and if you’re interested send in your social security number,’” Jaster said. “I wrote him back and said, ‘No, I was not aware sergeant major. I don’t care. I like room service.’”Her rejection fell on deaf ears as her sergeant major and her husband worked together to convince her to take a chance. Jaster’s argument was that “younger, fitter ladies” who had their whole careers ahead of them should be the ones attending the school, not a 37-year-old who entered West Point in 1996. Her husband’s argument, which was ultimately successful, was what if you don’t do it and no one is successful? What would she think then?“It’s kind of that old quote, ‘Be the change you seek,’” Jaster said. “I don’t feel like my opportunities were stripped from me because I was a woman. I just believe my path is very different, because I am a woman.”“It’s kind of that old quote, ‘Be the change you seek,’” Jaster said. “I don’t feel like my opportunities were stripped from me because I was a woman. I just believe my path is very different, because I am a woman.”The announcement came out in late September 2014. She had to decide by the end of October, and then in early 2015 she and 18 other women arrived at Ranger School. Because she served in an IMA unit, she didn’t have all the Army issued equipment needed for Ranger School, so she bought her own and showed up with a Mary Kay brand hand mirror, a CamelBak that was sort of the right camo pattern and other self-purchased equipment.Arriving at the gates on day zero, she had that same “I get to be here” feeling of excitement she’d felt on Reception Day at West Point. But, unlike her classmates whose careers were riding on passing or failing the course, she had nothing to lose.If she passed, she proved what could be accomplished by a female Reserve officer whose Army career had started almost two decades earlier. If she failed, she would go home to her unit, her civilian job and a husband who believed in her even when she didn’t believe in herself.The average Ranger School graduate is a 23-year-old male, but in October 2015 Jaster became the first female Reserve Soldier and third female overall to graduate from Ranger School.“There was a level of this is terrible, because that’s how Army things are, but all in all it was an amazing experience,” Jaster said. “I had the privilege and I was allowed to walk through those gates, and I wouldn’t give that experience up for anything.”“It's been very rewarding”Forty years after Andrea Hollen became the first woman to join the Long Gray Line, the impact of that moment has not only resonated throughout the Army as women led Soldiers, but also throughout American society as female graduates joined the private sector.Kathy Hildreth graduated from West Point in 1983 and served until 1988. The Army had not originally been on her radar until a co-worker at Sears asked her if she’d considered attending West Point and introduced her to an admissions recruiter he knew.It was late in the process, but they were able to get her accepted and then find a nomination that was unused, so she joined the academy in the summer of 1979.The most difficult time came, Hildreth said, when as an upperclass cadet the same male classmates who she had bonded with as they fought through plebe year together turned against the women and expressed their negative opinions of women being at the academy.“I had some highs and some lows, but overall, I think if you asked me 20 years ago, would I do it again? I would have said no,” Hildreth said. “If you ask me now looking back, I'd say probably yes. That's a matter of time and perspective that you can have looking back at maybe what were unpleasant experiences and reframing them and the way that it affected the rest of your life.”Hildreth branched aviation after graduation, with the plan to work in aviation maintenance. Everyone in the branch had to learn to fly first, so she did before being stationed in South Korea.Learning to fly was natural for Hildreth. Long before she had considered attending West Point and joining the Army, she had flown through the skies with her parents. They both had pilot licenses and owned a Cesna 172. That experience led her to the aviation branch and the desire to work in maintenance.Hildreth finished her Army career at Hunter Army Airfield before transitioning to the civilian world. Her time as an aviation maintenance officer would not be wasted, though. After spending more than a decade working for General Electric, DynCorp and Lockheed Martin, in 2003 she returned to her aviation roots and started M1 Support Services with a business partner.They built the company from the ground up and 17 years later have contracts with the Army, Navy and Air Force to repair planes and helicopters and employ more than 7,000 people throughout the world.“It’s been very rewarding,” Hildreth said. “We competed very early as a small company against some very large companies and were able to provide a good case to whichever government agency we were bidding to that we could perform the work, even though we were smaller than some of our competitors.”“10,000 of the right decisions”Flying 250 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station, the reality of the moment and all that it had taken to get there hit McClain and filled her with sadness.The journey had been long. She’d had to make “10,000 of the right decisions” since the age of 3 to get this moment. In high school, she prepared herself to get admitted to West Point from the instant she found out it was an option. As a cadet, she studied engineering and put herself in a position to branch aviation upon graduation with the Class of 2002.She then learned to fly Kiowa Warrior helicopters and, while focused on being the best Army officer possible and making the most of her current career, she never wavered from her ultimate goal of being selected by NASA to become an astronaut.The dream became a reality when she was selected as a member of the 2013 astronaut class and began training for space flight. Astronaut basic training takes two years, and then after being assigned to a flight the crew members spend more time training and preparing.She spent 6 1/2 months flying aboard the space station. Her days filled with tasks such as science experiments and maintenance of the station. Then there were the moments when she was able to step out into the vastness of space during a spacewalk, with Earth in one direction and the infinite stars stretching out behind her.“Looking at the stars, I felt really connected to the Earth. We were being held in orbit by gravity and it was like I was a traveler of the universe and I could point to Earth and say that planet’s mine. It is pretty neat,” McClain said.“Looking at the stars, I felt really connected to the Earth. We were being held in orbit by gravity and it was like I was a traveler of the universe and I could point to Earth and say that planet’s mine. It is pretty neat,” McClain said.But it was in one of those quiet moments aboard the station where the sadness hit her. Because the fact of the matter, she realized, was that if she had been born 15 or 20 years earlier, the path she had taken might not have been open to her. She was able to attend West Point, learn to fly, lead Soldiers and eventually fulfill her lifelong dream of leaving Earth behind and floating amongst the stars.“When I look back at people who had to fight to get into the military academies, fight to get into combat arms, fight to be able to fly helicopters, it actually makes me angry, because what we didn’t get as a society is the best that those people could have offered if they didn’t have to spend energy doing that,” McClain said.Starting with the Class of 1980, her predecessors had knocked down the doors that would have stood in her way. Instead of fighting for opportunities, she was able to seize them. Instead of having to ask to be included, she was given a seat at the table.And 40 years after they walked across the stage and received their diplomas from West Point, that is the legacy of the women in the Class of 1980. They showed up, took the blows that came from cadets and faculty alike, and refused to be beaten. They broke through a door that had been closed to the generations before them and walked through it allowing those who came after to not just walk, but fly.(Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series. Part three next week will highlight current female cadets at West Point.)