Collins, Eileen

views updated May 23 2018

Eileen Collins

November 19, 1956 • Elmira, New York


Throughout her career as an astronaut, Eileen Collins achieved several firsts in the history of space travel. In 1995, when she took the helm of the Discovery, she became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. A space shuttle is a manned spacecraft used to transport crews and materials into orbit on short missions that have a particular purpose. For example, part of the 1995 Discovery mission was to retrieve an astronomy satellite (an instrument that orbits in space and sends clear astral images back to Earth for observation). Collins was the first woman to command a space shuttle in 1999; and in July 2005 she commanded the much-anticipated launch of the first space shuttle since the disastrous Columbia voyage in 2003, during which all seven astronauts were killed on board. Collins's 2005 mission was considered key to the future of manned space flight, since the focus was to test out new safety measures and repair techniques. When the shuttle returned to Earth on August 10, 2005, with the seven-person crew safe and sound, watchers the world over breathed a sigh of relief.

Born to soar

Eileen Marie Collins was born on November 19, 1956, in Elmira, New York, an appropriate birthplace for a would-be pilot since the city is known as the "soaring capital" of the United States. It is home to the Harris Hill Soaring Center, where pilots congregate to fly gliders (motorless airplanes). In fact, some of Collins's earliest and fondest memories are of visiting Harris Hill and watching the sleek planes soar off the ridges of the city. Another favorite memory is going to the local airport with her parents and watching planes take off while sitting on the hood of their car. Such family moments, however, were short-lived. When Collins was nine years old, her mother, Rose, and father, James, separated. "It hit me like a ton of bricks," she commented to Al Weisel of Us magazine.

It was an emotionally difficult time in Collins's life, made only worse by economic hardship. Her father lost his job at the post office, and her mother was looking for work. For a time Collins, her mother, and three siblings lived in low-income housing and relied on food stamps (government-funded coupons used to redeem groceries). James eventually became a surveyor and Rose took a job at a correctional facility, or prison, which made their financial situation better—but there was still little room for luxuries. The thing that Collins wanted most was flying lessons. During high school she worked nights at a pizza parlor to save up the $1,000 needed for private lessons. At age nineteen she stepped on her first plane and knew immediately that she wanted to be a professional pilot.

"My daughter just thinks that all moms fly the space shuttle."

At the same time, Collins spent a good deal of time studying about military flying. "I had been reading about pilots, and it fascinated me," she explained to Weisel. "The first time women were accepted as pilots in the military was in 1974, just as I was reading about it. The timing was perfect." After high school Collins enrolled at Corning Community College in New York, where she received an associates degree in mathematics in 1974. She then took her first step toward the military by joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). The ROTC is a college-based program that prepares individuals for advanced military careers. Thanks to an ROTC scholarship, Collins attended Syracuse University in New York and graduated in 1978 with bachelor's degrees in mathematics and economics.

A string of military firsts

Although the U.S. Navy accepted women as pilots in 1974, the U.S. Air Force did not until 1976. In 1978, when Collins set her sights on attending Undergraduate Pilot Training school at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, she was among the first group of 120 females to apply. She was one of only four women chosen; the rest of her classmates (320 total) were men. After a year of training, the twenty-three-old Collins became the U.S. Air Force's first female flight instructor. From 1979 until 1990 Collins taught flying at bases in Oklahoma, California, and Colorado. She also served as an assistant professor of mathematics at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. In addition to teaching, Collins continued her own studies by attending classes at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio, and earning a master of science degree in operations research from California's Stanford University in 1986, and a master of arts degree in space systems management from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri.

By 1989, at the age of thirty-two, Collins was, according to Guy Gugliotta of the Seattle Times, "as hot a property as the Air Force had." Having logged in over fifteen hundred hours of flight time and secured several advanced degrees, Collins became the second woman ever to be accepted to the prestigious Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. While there she held her own in the male-dominated ranks of the military and cemented a reputation for being a cool, level-headed pilot.

Citizens in Space

In the early 2000s, the future of the NASA space program remained in question, but the outlook for commercial space tourism was in full swing. After space exploration became a reality in the early 1960s, many predicted that in the near future the average citizen would be able to take trips to space. Visionaries dreamed of space vacations, hotels on other planets, and families taking up residence on the moon.

In 1990, the first private citizen, Japanese reporter Toyohiro Akiyama (1942–), was allowed to accompany a Russian crew on a week-long mission to the Mir space station. The fee was $28 million. Ten years later, in 2000, administrators of the Mir space station again offered would-be tourists the opportunity to travel to space. The reason was to offset the high cost of maintaining the station. On April 28, 2001, U.S. businessman Dennis Tito (1940–) paid a whopping $20 million for a seven-day mission to visit the International Space Station. South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth (1973–) became the third space tourist on April 25, 2002, traveling aboard the Russian Soyuz TM-34 mission for ten days. He, too, paid $20 million for the opportunity and spent a year prior to the launch undergoing extensive training.

After the 2003 Columbia mission disaster, which resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts, commercial spaceflight was temporarily halted. Privately funded companies, however, continued to reach for the stars. The most well known was the Scaled Composites aviation company headed by U.S. aircraft designer Burt Rutan (1943–). Rutan's crew of engineers succeeded in building an experimental aircraft called SpaceShipOne, capable of suborbital flight. In a suborbital flight a craft reaches just to the edge of space, and requires less velocity (speed and power) than a craft going into actual orbit.

On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne performed its first successful manned spaceflight; it also became the first privately funded human spaceflight. On October 4 of that same year SpaceShipOne's creators took home the coveted Ansari X Prize, a competition funded by the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit organization that encourages private space exploration. Several other private companies had been vying for the $10 million prize for several years, but Rutan was the first to fully satisfy the competition criteria. The rules specified that the winner would be the first privately funded, piloted spacecraft to reach an altitude of at least 62.14 miles (the boundary of space). The launch had to be successfully performed twice in two weeks.

Based on SpaceShipOne's success Rutan predicted that commercial space travel for the average citizen was inevitable. Passengers onboard a suborbital flight would be taken on a short trip, but they would fully experience the weightlessness of space and a spectacular view of Earth. The cost would also be relatively less expensive than previous commercial flights, expecting to run approximately $100,000. As Rutan commented to Brad Stone of Newsweek, "After this flight, I don't think it will be hard to convince anyone that space tourism is within the grasp of normal people."

After graduating in 1990, Collins was chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to become an astronaut. NASA was formed in 1958 and is the government agency responsible for monitoring the U.S. space program. In 2005 there were approximately 439 astronauts worldwide. Astronauts usually have military backgrounds and are experienced test pilots. Because of the rigorous physical, mental, and scientific demands, they are among an elite group.

Enters the space race

Collins's basic astronaut training included several courses in land and water survival, parachute training, and field trips to various NASA centers and geological sites. There were also classes in such things as the history of the space program, weather, medicine, and mechanics. Perhaps the most difficult part of training was the simulator, which puts pilots through practice launches. During eight-minute sessions, instructors bombard trainees with a series of mechanical malfunctions that might take place during a mission. The pilot may have mere seconds to make a life-or-death decision.

Collins's initial assignments were to provide engineering support for unmanned orbiting systems. Over the next five years she also served as a spacecraft communicator, and then as the Astronaut Office Spacecraft Systems Branch Chief, Chief Information Officer, Shuttle Branch Chief, and Astronaut Safety Branch Chief. All of this experience prepared Collins for her first mission as a space shuttle pilot in 1995. The mission was the first leg of a new joint space program between Russia and the United States and involved a rendezvous between the U.S. shuttle Discovery and the Russian Mir space station. The Mir space station was the first long-standing orbiting research station in space; it existed until 2001. Collins remembered the feeling of her first flight in an interview with Al Weisel in 1999: "The launch sounds like you're standing in a room that's on fire. The engines turn off at eight and a half minutes, and you're immediately in zero gravity. I pulled out my pen and it floated. I thought, I'm here—I'm in space."

Collins was the first woman to pilot a shuttle, and upon her return she was awarded the Harmon Trophy, which each year honors the highest achievement in space flight. In 1997 Collins piloted her second Discovery-Mir mission, and in 1999 she reached another space history milestone by becoming the first woman to command a space shuttle. The focus of the five-person Columbia crew was to launch the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the largest X-ray telescope ever established in space. The mission, however, did not begin smoothly. During the launch, faulty wiring blew out two of the shuttle's three main engines. Although the backup engine kicked in, another problem arose when a fuel line began to leak. Throughout the ordeal Commander Collins remained calm and collected, and she successfully guided the craft through launch, its five-day mission, and a safe landing. According to Jeremy Manier of the Chicago Tribune, her cool-headed response to the perilous situation "helped seal the admiration of her colleagues."

Most important mission

Throughout her career Collins lived in the spotlight because of her many accomplishments. In 2005 that spotlight became very bright as her next, and perhaps most important command mission, approached. The purpose of the fourteen-day Discovery mission was to improve safety features for future shuttle missions, a particularly vital task since the credibility of the U.S. space program had plummeted during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The primary reason was that federal budget cuts forced NASA administrators to look for ways to reduce costs. In 1999, after two unmanned orbiters (Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander) disinte-grated, the press began to severely criticize the effects of the cuts.

The most serious blow to the space program came on February 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. The entire seven-person crew died in the explosion. The shuttle program was halted for the next two years while researchers investigated the cause. Ultimately it was discovered that falling foam debris from the fuel tank struck the Columbia during launch, causing unseen damage that made it fall apart during reentry. One of the Discovery crew's tasks during its 2005 mission was to do the first-ever complete nose-over-tail spin, which would allow the underside of the shuttle to be photographed and inspected for problems. Any problems detected could then be fixed to assure a safe reentry.

Prior to the July 26, 2005, launch of the Discovery , reporters hounded Collins, asking her if she feared for her safety or if she felt pressured that the future of manned spaceflight depended on her success. Collins responded with her usual calm reserve. She told Marcia Dunn of the Los Angeles Times, "We are staying focused on the mission and we know we are good hands with the people on the ground."

During their fourteen days in space, the majority of the crew's time was spent docked at the International Space Station (ISS), which is an orbiting station sponsored by six international agencies from the United States, Japan, Russia, Canada, Brazil, and members of the European Space Agency. They delivered supplies to the ISS and made routine inspections and maintenance. In addition, Collins and crew carefully scrutinized their shuttle to ensure that no damage would prevent them from making a safe return.

On August 10, after a brief weather delay, the Discovery and its crew landed unharmed at Edwards Air Force Base. NASA officials gave cheers of joy, and at a CNN news conference, program manager Bill Parson commented, "It's a good day to be us." During that same conference, one senior official acknowledged Collins for the success: "There isn't any of this that is easy . . . but Eileen made it look like a cake walk."

Celebrity and mom

Although the Discovery mission was a success, it still suffered from falling foam during its launch. As a result NASA officials suspended future shuttle flights until engineers fully fixed the problem. Collins had no doubt, however, that the space program was back on track and looked forward to the future of manned trips to Mars and the moon. She explained to Cathy Booth Thomas of Time magazine, "We've got to constantly remind the generation that follows about the lessons we've learned."

Whether Collins would be back in space remained to be seen, although her public image as a celebrity was secured. In her hometown of Elmira she had achieved almost mythic status, and an Eileen Collins Observatory was established at nearby Corning Community College. Collins has also been honored with numerous awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, and NASA Space Flight Medals. In addition, after her first flight in 1995 she joined the ranks of America's top female achievers when she was added to the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Despite her national celebrity, Collins remained very private about her personal life and kept her family out of the limelight. She is married to fellow pilot Pat Youngs, whom she met in the 1980s when they were both flight instructors in California. They have two young children, Bridget and Luke. Bridget was nine years old at the time of the 2005 Discovery mission, and prior to the flight Collins felt it was necessary to help her daughter understand how spaceflight works. The two visited the shuttle flight simulator together and discussed all the safety measures that were in place. During the mission, Collins e-mailed her children every day.

In her spare time, Commander Collins has a difficult time unwinding and separating work from leisure. For fun she reads thick technical manuals and revisits feedback from flight training, all so that she can learn more about spaceflight. Her colleagues, however, wonder if there is anything left for her to learn. But, as the driven pilot revealed to Jeremy Manier, "I gotta tell you, I came back from my last flight and I tried to read a novel, and it was boring. I couldn't get into it. My life was like, way above anything I could read in a book."

For More Information


Gugliotta, Guy. "Rocket Woman: A Commander's Rise in the Ranks." Seattle Times(July 6, 2005): p. A3.

Manier, Jeremy. "Shuttle Leader: Low-Key, Persistent, Unflappable." Chicago Tribune(July 11, 2005).

Podesta, Jane Sims, Anne-Marie O'Neill, and Laurel Calkins. "Command Performance: Astronaut Eileen Collins." People (May 11, 1998): p. 225.

Stone, Brad. "Space Travel: Great Space Coaster?" Newsweek (June 28, 2004): p. 12.

Thomas, Cathy Booth. "Mom Will Be Away for a While." Time(April 18, 2005): p. 20.

Web Sites

"Astronaut Bio: Eileen Collins." NASA Web site. (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Dunn, Marcia. "7 Astronauts Marvel at Reception at Home." Los Angeles Times(August 10, 2005).,1,1431844.story?coll=sns-ap-science-headlines&ctrack=1&cset=true (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Patterson, Tom. "'Discovery Is Home': Shuttle Completes First Mission Since Loss of Columbia." Science & Space (August 10, 2005). (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Patterson, Tom. "NASA Eyes Shuttle's Future." Science & Space (August 10, 2005). (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Weisel, Al. "Miss Universe: Astronaut Eileen Collins." Us Weekly (April 1999). (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Eileen Collins

views updated May 18 2018

Eileen Collins

On February 4, 1995, at 12:22 a.m. in Cape Canaveral, Florida, thousands of people held their breath as Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins (born 1956) launched the U.S. Space Shuttle Discovery into the heavens on her first mission as pilot.

Flames burst from the shuttle's engines as smoke enveloped the launch pad. During the shuttle's violent ascent, acceleration is so forceful that the astronauts are pinned against their seats and breathe with difficulty as G-forces pound against their chests. The shuttle approaches an escape velocity of 3,000 miles per hour and later accelerates to 17,500 miles per hour. From her position inside the craft, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins handled the takeoff with extraordinary confidence.

Perhaps piloting the shuttle seemed to be all in a day's work for Collins because she had rehearsed the takeoff hundreds of times in a simulator. She spent the previous month practicing takeoffs and landings for up to 14 hours per day and, during the previous six months, spent an average of three hours per day in the simulator. But the morning of February 4 was the real thing, and there was no room for error. Fear and excitement undoubtedly swelled in Collins as the price of failure was contemplated.

First Woman to Pilot Shuttle

Although Collins's trip was the Discovery's twentieth flight and the sixty-seventh for the shuttle program, the voyage was a special one for a few reasons. First, the Discovery made a history-making rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station. Second, Collins was the first female pilot ever to fly the shuttle. Nineteen other women have been astronauts, beginning with Sally Ride in 1983, and have performed research and made space walks and repairs, but Collins was the first to actually pilot the craft.

Collins's responsibility for the flight included steering the space ship by firing small rockets, monitoring flight instruments, and handling the function of radar and navigation systems. Although the space shuttle was like no other aircraft she had ever been in, she mentioned in an interview with Ad Astra magazine before the launch, "I would say that every aircraft I have ever flown will have some transfer to flying the space shuttle." And Colonel Collins has flown many planes, logging over 4,000 hours in 30 different types of aircraft.

With all the flying experience Collins has under her belt, it would seem that she has been flying all of her life, but in fact, she had never stepped into a plane until she was 19 years old. Since Collins's parents could not afford the flying lessons she longed to take, she took part-time jobs to save up the $1,000 she would need. Alan Davis, the retired air force pilot who trained her, told the New York Times, "She was very quick to pick it up. She was very quiet and very reserved, but also very determined and very methodical."

Dreams of Flight

Collins's flying lessons were a long awaited gift to herself. Since her childhood, she loved going to the airport with her parents and sitting on the hood of their car to watch planes take off as she drank root beer. They would also go to Harris Hill and watch gliders sail off cliffs while she told herself that one day she would be in the cockpit when one of those planes took off. As a teen, she read military books on flying, but she recalled even earlier memories of a love for flight. In fifth grade, she read an article on the pros and cons of the space program. "Even then, I couldn't understand why we shouldn't spend money on the space program," she told Ad Astra.

Those were big dreams for a little girl born in the small town of Elmira, New York. Collins is the second of four children of James and Rose Marie Collins, who separated when she was nine years old. Part of Collins's childhood was subsequently spent in public housing, living on food stamps. Apparently, in school, she made a favorable impression on her teachers. Her high school chemistry instructor still remembers exactly where she sat in his class. He told the New York Times, "Second seat, second row," pointing to a picture of a shy, long-haired girl in a yearbook.

Collins graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 1974 and registered at Coming Community College. She received her associate's degree in math two years later and had intentions of being a math teacher. She also went on to receive a bachelor of arts in math and economics from Syracuse University. Some interesting things, however, were happening elsewhere in the world. In the same year she graduated from high school, the U.S. Navy accepted its first female pilots. Two years later, the U.S. Air Force accepted their first female pilots. And in 1978, they chose four female applicants from the 120 who applied for Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training. One of the accepted applicants was Collins.

Also in 1978, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began accepting women into the space program. Ironically, the first female astronauts did their parachute training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma at the same time Collins was there for air force training. Although always intrigued with space, it was the first time Collins realized that being an astronaut was possible. She later credited the other female astronauts who have gone before her. She told Ad Astra, "The fact that women have been in the NASA program since 1978 has helped me assimilate to the program. The first female astronauts were so excellent that it really paved the way for the future of women." Nevertheless, Collins felt there was tremendous pressure on her and commented in the New York Times, "I realize I can't afford to fail because I would be hurting other women's chances of being a pilot."

After graduating from pilot training in 1979 at the age of 23, Collins became the first female flight instructor. From 1979 to 1990, she taught in Oklahoma, California, and Colorado. In addition to giving soldiers flying lessons, she was also a math instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. A student as well as a teacher, she took pilot training classes at the Air Force Institute of Technology and, at age 32, was the second woman ever to attend Air Force Test Pilot School. Collins also received a master of science degree in operations research from Stanford University in 1986 and a master of arts degree in space systems management from Webster University in 1989.

Chosen by NASA

Then, in January of 1990, NASA selected Collins to become an astronaut. According to NASA biographical data, she was initially assigned to Orbiter systems support. She also served on the astronaut support team responsible for Orbiter prelaunch checkout, final launch configuration, crew ingress/egress, and landing/recovery, and as a spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM). She was later, of course, made space shuttle pilot for the Mir space station rendezvous flight in February of 1995.

The Mir space station is an artificial Russian satellite designed to revolve in a fixed orbit and serve as a base for scientific observation and experimentation. Eventually, the Mir will be permanently occupied, and space shuttles will transport astronauts to and from the station. This mission of February 4, 1995, was a dry run to lay the groundwork for an actual landing scheduled for the summer of that year. Collins explained the mission to a reporter in Ad Astra: "The best comparison to what we are going to do is the Apollo 10 mission that descended to within 15 kilometers of the lunar surface, and the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the Moon." The rendezvous continued a trend of international cooperation between Russia and the United States. Space exploration has also strengthened relationships between other nations, including Canada, Japan, and European countries.

A change in the Spacehab module that the shuttle would be carrying into orbit caused a postponing of the launch, which was originally scheduled for May of 1994. Although the nine-month delay was frustrating, Collins took the extra time to learn the Russian language and familiarize herself with the Mir. Then, just before the next scheduled flight, there was a failure in one of the three navigation units required to control the shuttle's steering. Engineers worked around the clock, and NASA delayed the trip another 24 hours. When the launch finally took place, the astronauts discovered a minor propellant leak on one of the jet thrusters. Though the leak would be manageable, the Russian astronauts became worried about the Mir's exposure to damage by such a close encounter and rearranged the rendezvous for a safer 1,000 feet, instead of the scheduled 38 feet. NASA scientists negotiated with the Russians, reassuring them that their space station was in no danger. The Russians were eventually convinced and agreed to the original 38 foot close encounter. Throughout the obstacles and delays, Collins handled the pressure with amazing calmness.

Collins credits her rugged astronaut training for preparing her for adversity. Although her pilot experience helped, NASA stretched her far beyond anything she thought possible. She recounted in Ad Astra, "20% of our basic astronaut training takes us through land and water survival, parachute training, field trips to all the NASA centers, and geology field trips. … About 70% of our basic course concerns learning the space shuttle [and] another part is called enrichment training where we learn a little bit about everything—oceanography, the history of the space program, astronomy, orbital mechanics, weather, medicine—all taught at various intervals to give us a feel for the big picture."

Collins later noted that the simulator was one of the hardest parts of her training. During an eight-minute artificial launch, trainers input up to 20 different malfunctions. She remarked in Ad Astra, "You have to prioritize and organize quickly: What's wrong? How to fix it? Find the procedure, then do the procedure. Then you get interrupted with another malfunction. Then you have to decide which one will 'kill me' now, in ten seconds, or in minutes."

As hard as training is in the 1990s, it was much more barbaric 30 years before. Concerning the training of the 1960s, the Irish Times wrote, "[The astronauts later claimed] the physical and psychological tests were devised by a sadist. … [They] rode exercise bikes to exhaustion, swallowed a meter-long rubber hose, drank radioactive water and were prodded, tilted, and spun until they couldn't stand." Such tests were given to the women who were almost the first female astronauts and who share a special relationship with Collins. Known as FLATS (fellow lady astronaut trainees), the 26 women were tested in 1961 along with male astronauts. Thirteen of them passed, becoming known as the Mercury 13. NASA, however, canceled the project before the women ever soared into the galaxy. Sarah Ratley, one of the Mercury 13, told the Kansas City Star after Collins's takeoff, "We all knew Eileen and just kind of felt like we were there going up with her saying, 'Go, go, go.' It was a feeling as if we had finally made it."

In April of 1994, the FLATS had an official gathering, to which they had invited Collins. She returned the favor by offering the 11 surviving women special seats for the Mir launch. Collins told a Cable News Network (CNN) correspondent, "I feel like so many of them have become friends of mine now, and I'm sort of carrying on their dream." She offered to carry with her on the shuttle such mementos as a scarf worn by aviator Amelia Earhart, known for various female "firsts," and a pilot's license signed by Orville Wright for the famed flier Evelyn (Bobbi) Trout in 1924. Everyone gave something except Jerri Truhill, who explained on National Public Radio (NPR), "I told [Collins] she was carrying my dreams, that was all that was necessary."

When the space shuttle thundered into the horizon early in the morning on February 4, 1995, some of the onlookers cried. Women have come a long way in the field of aviation and astronautics, and Collins took them one step further.

Further Reading

Ad Astra, July/August 1994, p. 30; January/February 1995, pp. 32-36.

Detroit Free Press, January 30, 1995, p. 5A.

Gannet News Service, February 11, 1995.

Houston Chronicle, February 11, 1995, p. 16.

Irish Times, February 11, 1995, p. 8.

Kansas City Star, February 16, 1995, p. C1.

New York Times, February 1, 1995, p. A7; February 5, 1995, p. 15;

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 4, 1995, p. A6; February 9, 1995, p. A1.

U.S. News & World Report, February 13, 1995, p. 22.

Washington Post, February 3, 1995, p. A8; February 4, 1995, p. A3.

Washington Times, March 12, 1995, p. A2.

Working Woman, February 1995, p. 14.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from The Week in Review, CNN, February 12, 1995; Weekend Edition, NPR, February 11, 1995; and NASA biographical data, January 1994. □

Collins, Eileen

views updated May 08 2018

Collins, Eileen

American Shuttle Commander, Pilot, and Mathematician 1956-

Space shuttle Columbia (STS-93) lifted off in July 1999 under the command of Eileen Collins, the first woman shuttle commander. Collins graduated from the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training program at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma in 1979 and remained there as a T-38 instructor pilot until 1982. She then moved to Travis Air Force Base in Colorado, where she was a C-141 aircraft commander and instructor pilot until 1985.

From 1986 to 1989, Collins was an assistant professor of mathematics and a T-41 instructor pilot at the U.S. Air Force Academy. She received two master's degrees during that period: a master of science in operations research from Stanford University in 1986 and a master of arts in space systems management from Webster University in 1989.

Collins became a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut in 1991. She has worked in mission control as a spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) and served as chief of the Shuttle Branch at NASA Johnson Space Center. She became the first woman pilot of the space shuttle when she flew on STS-63 in 1995; that mission marked the first shuttle rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir. Collins returned to Mir a second time as the pilot of STS-84 in 1997, followed by STS-93 in 1999, when as shuttle commander she oversaw the deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Telescope.

see also Career Astronauts (volume 1); History of Humans in Space (volume 3); Mir (volume 3); Space Shuttle (volume 3); Women in Space (volume 3).

Nadine G. Barlow


Ellis, Lee A. Who's Who of NASA Astronauts. New York: Americana Group Publishing, 2001.

Internet Resources

"Biographical Data." Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. <>.