Discovery Mission Means Giant Leap for Womankind

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A giant leap is about to be made for womankind.

When space shuttle Discovery blasts off Tuesday, a woman will be sitting in the commander's seat. And up at the international space station, a female skipper will be waiting to greet her.

It'll be the first time in the 50-year history of spaceflight that two women are in charge of 2 spacecraft at the same time.

This is no public relations gimmick cooked up by NASA. It's coincidence, which pleases shuttle commander Pamela Melroy and station commander Peggy Whitson.

Whitson's the first woman to be in charge of a space station after arriving on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on October 12th. She flew there with two men, one a Russian cosmonaut who will spend the entire six months with her.

Before the launch, an official presented her with a traditional Kazakh whip to take with her. She said she took the gift as a compliment, but it stayed behind on Earth.

At least it wasn't a mop.

Eleven years ago, just before Shannon Lucid rocketed to the Russian space station Mir, a Russian space official said he was pleased she was going up because "women love to clean."

What's more, Melroy is the only female shuttle pilot left at NASA. Eileen Collins, who in 1999 became the first woman to command a shuttle, quit NASA last year. Susan Kilrain, who flew as a shuttle pilot but never as a commander, resigned in 2002. Both have children.

Melroy and Whitson are married to scientists, and neither has children.