Expanding Focus: 1970 – 1999
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 October 7, 1975, although preparation had begun years before. Anticipating the requirement, Lt. Gen. Albert P. Clark had directed extensive study and planning for the incorporation of women before he retired in July 1974.
On June 28, 1976, 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 May 28, 1980.
Meanwhile, the space shuttle program was formally launched on January 5, 1972, when President Nixon announced that NASA would proceed with the development of a reusable space shuttle system. Space had always been part of the Academy curriculum. Since 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. Many Air Force Academy graduates have become astronauts, and 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. 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, 37 Air Fore Academy graduates have become astronauts for NASA, producing the second highest number of astronauts next to the Naval Academy.
Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, a 1980 graduate, will soon become a 4-star general. President Barack Obama nominated Gen. Wolfenbarger for promotion February 6, 2012, which, pending Senate approval, will make her the first female four-star general in Air Force history.
Academy graduates continued to achieve honors in many areas. Chad Hennings, 1988 Academy graduate, won multiple national awards during his football career at the Academy. Hennings went on to play in the National Football League with the Dallas Cowboys winning three Super Bowls. During Desert Storm he flew attack and support missions in the A-10 Thunderbolt.
First Lt. Laura A. Piper, a 1992 Academy graduate, became the first female graduate to die in a combat zone and the first female graduate to receive the Purple Heart. Piper was killed April 14, 1994, when the helicopter in which she was a passenger was shot down in a friendly fire incident over northern Iraq.
Graduates brought new thinking to the Academy and beyond. Lt. Gen. Bradley C. Hosmer became the first Academy graduate to be named superintendent, serving from 1991-94. He was responsible for the creation of the Center for Character Development, which oversees and coordinates character training and education.
Heather Wilson graduated from the Academy in 1982 as a distinguished graduate and then attended Oxford earning a Doctor of Philosophy in International Relations. In 1998, Heather Wilson became the first Academy graduate to become a member of Congress, serving as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing New Mexico until 2009.
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