Eileen Marie Collins
As Eileen Collins walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma, she was certain that her future lay in aviation. She learned to fly on her own dime, joined the Air Force ROTC at Syracuse and quietly worked toward her goal. The year she started flying for the Air Force was also the first year NASA started accepting women for the Space Shuttle program. Her dreams could actually become reality. First though, she needed 1,000 hours in high-performance aircraft, a hindrance because women then were not combat flying. Not to be deterred, Collins became a T-38 jet instructor – the first woman to do so.
- Collins was in the first class at Vance Air Force Base to include women, and remained at Vance as a T-38 instructor pilot.
- In July 1991, Collins became an astronaut. She went on to serve as Pilot aboard STS-63 and STS-84, and Commander aboard STS-93 and STS-114, logging over 872 hours in space.
- Collins became the first woman to Command a space shuttle flight.
- In July 2005, Collins was selected to serve as Commander on the Return-to-Flight mission, STS-114, the first after the tragic loss of the Columbia crew and orbiter.
Colonel Eileen Marie Collins was born November 19, 1956 in Elmira, New York, the soaring capital of America and the home of the National Soaring Museum. At just 9 years old, Collins read an article in her Junior Scholastic magazine on the pros and cons of spending money on the space program. After reading both the pros and cons, she couldn’t imagine how any country would not spend money on space exploration.
When Collins was in college and looking towards her future, NASA announced they were accepting women for the shuttle program but at that point she didn’t have all the requirements. It would be another decade before Collins was ready to submit her application.
Collins decided the best route to space started with the Air Force. Already a licensed pilot, Collins was in the first class at Vance Air Force Base to include women. She would remain at Vance as a T-38 instructor pilot.
From 1983 to 1985, she was a C-141 aircraft commander and instructor pilot at Travis Air Force Base in California. Transferring from the small high-powered T-38 to the slow, lumbering C-141 may have been hard for Collins, but she enjoyed the change and liked being part of a crew.
She spent the following year as a Stanford University graduate student through an Air Force Institute of Technology program. From 1986 to 1989, she was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, where she was an assistant professor in mathematics and a T-41 instructor pilot.
Collins, who was dubbed “as hot a property as the Air Force had,” was accepted to the male dominated Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base and created a reputation for being a cool, level-headed pilot.
Collins surprised everyone when she was accepted for the astronaut program; she never told anyone except her unit commanders. In July 1991, Collins became an astronaut.
Following a year of astronaut training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, Collins was assigned to Orbiter engineering support. Next, she served on the Kennedy Space Center team responsible for Orbiter pre-launch checkout, final launch configuration, crew ingress/egress, and landing/recovery. She also worked in Mission Control as a spacecraft communicator, served as the Astronaut Office Spacecraft Systems Branch Chief, Chief Information Officer, Shuttle Branch Chief, and Astronaut Safety Branch Chief.
As a veteran of four space flights, Collins has logged over 872 hours in space aboard STS-63 in February 1995 and STS-84 in May 1997. She also became the first woman to command an American space mission when she served on STS-93 Columbia in July 1999.
STS-63 was the first flight of the new joint Russian-American space program. Mission highlights included the rendezvous with Mir, the Russian Space Station; operation of Spacehab, the deployment and retrieval of an astronomy satellite; and a space walk.
STS-84 was NASA’s sixth shuttle mission to rendezvous and dock with the Russian Space Station. During the flight, the crew conducted a number of secondary experiments and transferred nearly four tons of supplies and experimental equipment between Atlantis and the Mir station.
The STS-93 mission highlighted the deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Designed to conduct comprehensive studies of the universe, the telescope has enable scientists to study exotic phenomena such as exploding stars, quasars and black holes. The Chandra X-Ray to Collins is the most rewarding. She says “the thousands of people involved in the project and launch proved the high skill level and teamwork involved is truly a powerful thing”
In July 2005, Collins flew her last mission, this time as the STS-114 Commander. STS-114 was the Return-to-Flight mission after the tragic loss of the Columbia crew and orbiter. In the years leading up to the mission, Collins and her crew were involved in research to make the Space Shuttle safer and more operationally efficient. During the flight, the crew tested and evaluated new procedures for inspection and repair. These included the first Rendezvous Pitch-Around Maneuver, now a standard procedure on all shuttle flights to the space station, the first on-orbit robotic inspection of a heat shield, and the first on-orbit repair of a heat shield. STS-114 proved that the shuttle was ready to safely continue it’s job of building and supplying the International Space Station.
For her pioneering role in the exploration of air and space, Eileen M. Collins has earned her place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.