Women Change the Face of the NOAA Corps

NOAA is home to the nation’s seventh, and smallest, uniformed service: the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps. NOAA Corps officers can be found operating NOAA ships and aircraft or serving in NOAA research laboratories and program offices. The services provided by officers are critical to acquiring data for NOAA science and delivering information and products to the public.



Since the NOAA Corps opened up to women in 1972, women and men have been given the same opportunities to compete for assignments and advance through the service. Click image for larger view.

Since its inception, the NOAA Corps has evolved in many ways. In the earliest days of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, a predecessor office of NOAA, officers were all men and all were civil engineers. Fifty years ago, most officers were engineers and all officers were men. Unlike other federal uniformed services, the NOAA Corps and its predecessor services were closed to women until 1972. The commissioning of women is probably the largest single change in the NOAA Corps since 1917.

This article traces the transformation of the NOAA Corps from an all-male organization to one where both men and women officers have had the opportunity to compete for any assignment within the service. Today, NOAA Corps officer duties and areas of operations can range from launching a weather balloon at the South Pole, conducting hydrographic or fishery surveys in Alaska, maintaining buoys in the tropical Pacific, or flying into hurricanes.


The Way It Was: An All-Male Organization

Although women have been serving in uniformed services within various non-combatant posts since 1811, it was not until 1972 that women were brought into the NOAA Corps under any condition.

The NOAA Corps traces its lineage back to 1807, when President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill establishing the Survey of the Coast and a department composed of civilians—including women—and Army and Navy officers. However, the commissioned service of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, established in 1917, was an all-male organization. The service continued that way through its evolution into the Environmental Science and Service Administration Corps in 1965, and then the NOAA Corps in 1970.

The men of the NOAA Corps commanded NOAA’s research vessels, flew NOAA aircraft, worked on mobile field survey parties, and served in a variety of management positions throughout NOAA. This was as it had been for over 50 years, until the first director of the NOAA Corps, Rear Admiral Harley Nygren, NOAA (ret.), changed the face of the Corps by opening the service to women.


A Transformation Occurs: The NOAA Corps Opens Up Its Ranks to Women

In 1972, there were social pressures, but no legal restrictions, against allowing women into the Corps, according to Nygren.

“There was no reason not to, so I just decided to let women join the NOAA Corps,” Nygren said. “I had a fellow look at the current statutes and regulations, and we came to the conclusion that there were no obstructions or impediments to doing it. Even though there were a lot of people opposed to it, I had the support of the NOAA administrator.”

“We did not have ‘men jobs’ and ‘women jobs,’” Nygren added. “Anything women wanted to try they could, and more power to them. As soon as I authorized it, the fleet followed. Women went to ships where the facilities were most appropriate. Some of the ships already had female scientists on board, so it was not difficult to accommodate the new officers.”

“Although it was a shock to some of the old timers, having women in the NOAA Corps civilized life at sea. When you put men and women together, you create a normal culture aboard the ship,” Nygren said.

Pamela Chelgren

Pamela Chelgren was commissioned an ensign and entered Basic Officer Training Class 41 in 1972 - the first woman to join the NOAA Corps. Click image for larger view.

Pamela Chelgren, daughter of a Navy captain, was the first woman to join the NOAA Corps. Appointed on June 21, 1972, she was commissioned along with 17 other officers—the only female in an organization of 345 members. She rose through the ranks to become a commander and retired in May, 1995.

Francesca Cava, commissioned in July, 1973, became the first woman promoted to the rank of captain in the NOAA Corps. She retired in 1994.

Evelyn Fields, commissioned in October, 1973, was the first African-American woman to join the Corps. Fields was not afraid to take risks—a characteristic that brought her a few “firsts” in her NOAA Corps career. She was the first woman and first African-American to hold the position of Director of the NOAA Corps and Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. She was also the first (and so far, only) woman to reach the rank of rear admiral in the NOAA Corps. Her rise to the top position in the Corps was the final of several “firsts” for Fields before she retired in 2002.

Michele Finn

CDR Michele Finn began her career as a pilot in a NOAA Twin Otter (shown), then advanced through the ranks to become the first female Gulfstream-IV hurricane surveillance jet pilot. Click image for larger view.

Marcella J. Bradley, commissioned in January 1975, was the first female NOAA Corps pilot. She retired as a lieutenant commander in February, 1995.

Emily Christman, commissioned in 1984 and now a captain, became Commanding Officer of the Marine Operations Center-Atlantic in 2006—the first woman named to that position.

Michele Bullock, commissioned in 1985 and now a captain, was first to command a NOAA ship where the top three NOAA Corps officers serving onboard were women.

Michele Finn, commissioned in 1989 and now a commander, was the first woman to become a pilot of the NOAA Gulfstream-IV hurricane surveillance jet.


The Way It Is: An Evolved Service

Service in today’s NOAA Corps combines a scientific or engineering career with extensive travel and varied assignments, rotating between ships or aircraft and office assignments in technical and management positions.

In a typical career, a NOAA Corps officer—male or female—could be involved in duties such as serving aboard a hydrographic, fisheries, or oceanographic research ship; scuba diving; conducting fish and marine mammal surveys, environmental satellite operations, and engineering field work; participating in research at one of NOAA’s numerous laboratory facilities across the country; or flying into the eye of a hurricane.

Officers from the Hawaii-based Ka'Imimoana and Oscar Elton Sette

Officers from the Hawaii-based Ka'Imimoana and Oscar Elton Sette join forces for a group shot in Honolulu. Click image for larger view.

NOAA Corps officers have played key roles in assessing the environmental damage from the Exxon Valdez and Persian Gulf oil spills, helping unlock the mysteries of global climate change, exploring the ocean floor in NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries and throughout the world, working to modernize weather forecasting and warnings of severe weather, and serving prominently in NOAA’s efforts to describe and predict changes in the Earth’s environment while managing the nation’s coastal and marine resources.

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, NOAA aircraft and personnel provided support to the World Trade Center and Pentagon recovery and clean-up efforts by mapping the wreckage using remote sensing technology. NOAA ships assisted in the search and location of the wreckage from the crashes of TWA flight 800, John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s aircraft, and EgyptAir flight 990. NOAA Corps officers also assisted in the recovery efforts in the Gulf of Mexico following the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

Both male and female Corps officers have been instrumental in continuing the advancement of science and engineering, particularly in the refinement and development of new technologies for automated data collection, environmental analyses, aerial mapping, and hydrographic and meteorological instrumentation.



In the past 35 years, women have become an integral part of the NOAA Corps, and many barriers have been broken. Rear Admiral Harley Nygren first made it possible for women to experience the “esprit de corps” of this small but effective service and to make significant contributions to NOAA and the nation. Rear Admiral Evelyn Fields, the first female as well as the first African-American director of the NOAA Corps, took advantage of the opportunity and pushed it to the limit. Today, approximately 23 percent of the NOAA Corps is composed of women.

No matter what transformations transpire, the men and women of the NOAA Corps will continue to do what they always have done: provide critical support to NOAA's diverse and important missions.