NASA’s First Female Shuttle Pilot

American Icons, People
on April 17, 2005

The dream of being an astronaut began in fourth grade for Eileen Collins. It was a daring dream for a young girl in the 1960s—a time when the United States wasn’t sure about continuing space exploration and all of the nation’s astronauts were men.

But Collins didn’t need a role model; instead, she became one. Not only did she serve as NASA’s first female shuttle pilot in 1995 (on a rendezvous mission with the Russian Space Station Mir), but she also became the first—and only—female shuttle commander in the space shuttle’s 24-year history when she led a Columbia mission in 1999. A veteran of three space flights, Collins has logged more than 537 hours in space.

Now she is poised to lead her second mission, this time aboard Discovery, which is scheduled to launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center between May 15 and June 3. This “return to flight” mission, the 114th space shuttle flight and the 31st Discovery flight, will be the first since the loss of the Columbia shuttle and crew during reentry to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003.

Collins, 48, isn’t worried, though. “Quite the opposite,” she says. “I have a very high level of confidence because we have been involved daily with management, engineering and a flight control team to improve shuttle safety.”

Collins says the Discovery mission is the first step in the nation’s plan to develop spacecraft that will return astronauts to the moon, not just for short visits, but to build space stations, and potentially travel to Mars. “I believe our country needs to develop new methods of transportation to keep us a leader in space exploration, which is really important to me—new space craft, plus different types of propulsion to get us places faster.”

Other astronauts say they want to be a part of Collins’ flights because she’s a strong leader who keeps a level head. “She perceives everything going on around her; she evaluates and makes decisions with confidence,” says Catherine “Caddy” Coleman, who flew with Collins in 1999. “There’s no attitude or ego with Eileen, yet it’s always very clear who is in charge.”

A down-to-earth person with a ready smile, the slender 5-foot-6-inch Air Force colonel speaks with assurance. “She doesn’t expend energy on anger; she’s an even keel person—the kind of leader people enjoy working with,” Coleman adds.

Experience has helped Collins learn to delegate tasks. “I think that’s healthier for my crew and the people around me,” she says.

School & family influences

Growing up in Elmira, N.Y. (pop. 30,940), Collins learned the importance of working for what she wanted at an early age. “In those days, there were few opportunities for girls in sports or anything extracurricular, so school accomplishments mattered more,” she says. Support and positive influence came primarily from parents and teachers.

At age 15, Collins volunteered at church and the hospital, and later she held teenage jobs at a miniature golf course, catalog showroom and pizza restaurant. She earned tuition by cleaning at her private high school after classes. “While other kids went to cheerleading practice, I worked,” she says. “I worked at home, too, cooking dinner, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow. All four children chipped in to make the family unit function.”

Still, Collins remembered the story about space travel that she’d read in elementary school. She couldn’t imagine anyone opposing space exploration, but her dream seemed so far-fetched that she didn’t share it with anyone, not even her family, until she applied to the astronaut program many years later.

The path to space

Corning Community College in Corning, N.Y. (pop. 10,842), was Collins’ first step in higher education. “It worked well for me because I paid for college myself,” she says. After receiving an associate’s degree in science and math in 1976, Collins majored in math and economics at Syracuse University, attending on an ROTC scholarship. Following graduation in 1978, Collins saw opportunities opening for women in aviation. Soon after she joined the Air Force, the first astronaut class to include women visited her base.

“When NASA picked the first women as shuttle astronauts, my dream became a potential reality,” she says. “I wanted to be part of our nation’s space program. I wanted to fly the space shuttle.”

Air Force pilot training and stints as an aircraft commander and instructor at bases in Oklahoma and California followed, allowing Collins to log more than 5,000 hours in 30 different types of aircraft.

She earned a master’s degree in operations research from Stanford University in California in 1986. With the addition of a master’s degree in space systems management from Webster University in St. Louis in 1989, she accumulated a broad background that filled a void in the space program. Selected by NASA in January 1990, Collins became an astronaut in July 1991.

Nearly 14 years later, Collins remains enthralled with space travel. “My best memory is looking out the window and seeing all the outstanding geographical features,” she says. “One time we flew over Europe in descending mode, and (then) I could look down and see the Nile Delta, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. We crossed the Himalayan Mountains in India and flew over the Indian Ocean and Australia before the sun went down.”

Orbiting the Earth at 17,000 mph provides magical views. Collins’ eyes gleam as she says, “Windows are on top of the shuttle, so when we fly upside down, you can stretch out your arms and legs, put your face on the windows, and imagine you’re flying over the Earth—like there’s no spacecraft around you. You can do it at night, too. Turn off all the lights inside the shuttle, and spread your wings.”

The opportunity to see Earth from space is one reason Collins supports future space tourism. “It’s beautiful: the deserts, islands, atolls, the coral reefs that look like jewels in the water. Orbiting the Earth is such a visually breathtaking experience. All I can say is, ‘Wow!’”

A mother first

But when she returns to Earth, she’s just like any other working mom who struggles to find a balance between career and family. “I try to focus on the fact that I really love what I do. I draw energy from my job and my family, and they support what I do,” says Collins, who now makes her home in Houston.

She shares characteristics of life in the program with other women. “Before I came to NASA, she filled me in on housing, what to wear, what life is like here—just things women share with each other,” Coleman says. “Now that we both have children, we feel qualified not only in ‘outdoor leadership’ (required training), but in ‘indoor leadership’—overcoming obstacles we face at home with our families.”

When not actively preparing for a flight, Collins enjoys running and playing soccer with her 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. “I used to take pictures of airplanes; now I take pictures of my kids. They’re my hobbies.”

Although she loves to read, most evenings find the dedicated astronaut studying reports from her job. “A few years ago I tried to read a novel, got through a few chapters and thought, ‘My life is much more interesting than this book.’”