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Eileen Collins' History-Making Missions In Space
by USAF Desiree N. Palacios - March 22, 2013

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FORT MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- As a young child, Eileen Collins loved to sit with her dad in the family car and watch airplanes take off and land. The roar of the powerful engines and the grace of the aircraft as they seemed to float in the air always held excitement and enchantment for the young daughter of Irish immigrants. 

U.S. Air Force (Ret.) Col. Eileen Collins, pilot, astronaut, and first female shutter commander (Graphic by Sylvia Saab)

That love of flying would lead the Air Force colonel to be honored as the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, STS-93, in July of 1999, and place the NASA astronaut into the history books.

After earning a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics and economics from Syracuse University in 1978, she began her Air Force career in 1979. Collins graduated from the Air Force undergraduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., where she was a T-38 instructor pilot until 1982. In 1983, she moved to Travis AFB, Calif., and became a C-141 aircraft commander and instructor pilot until 1985.

She earned a master of science degree in operations research at Stanford University in 1986 and a master of arts degree in space systems management from Webster University in 1989.

After a stint as an instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., she was selected as only the second female to attend Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, Calif. It was on Jan. 16, 1990, at 10:20 a.m., that she recalled the moment that she was first notified that she would be the first female shuttle pilot select.

"I was very excited and happy," said Collins, who applied for both a pilot and mission specialist slot. "But even though I'll remember that day for the rest of my life, it really didn't sink in until I graduated. I knew that there had never been a woman shuttle pilot before. Now, I'd be the first."

Collins had a total of four space shuttle missions during her 15 years as a NASA astronaut, logging in more than 872 hours in space.

Her first shuttle mission in February 1995 was on the shuttle Discovery and was made historic by becoming the first flight of the new joint U.S. and Russia space program. During the flight, the shuttle rendezvoused with the Russian Space Station Mir, and included satellite deployment and retrieval and a space walk. During that flight, Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.

Her second mission in May of 1997 was on the space shuttle Atlantis and again took her to the Space Station Mir. That mission transferred more than four tons of equipment and supplies to the Mir.

It was her third mission that sent her into the history books, in July of 1999, when she became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. The space shuttle Columbia deployed the Chandra X-ray Observatory, designed to conduct comprehensive studies of the universe such as exploding stars, quasars and black holes.

Her final mission, aboard the Discovery, during late July and early August of 2005, was the "return to flight" mission following the disaster in February of 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia exploded prior to re-entry. That Discovery mission docked with the international space station and tested and evaluated new procedures for flight safety and inspection and repair techniques.

In May of 2006, Collins announced her retirement.

"I do miss being in space... but I flew four times, and all four missions were very busy because you're constantly working and under stress. You have a mission; your boss is the people of the country and you don't want to disappoint the people. Usually toward the end of the mission, you can let your hair down a little bit because the primary mission's done and everything is put away. That was when you could put your face against the glass, stretch out your arms, and you don't even see the ship around you, just the Earth below, and you feel like you're flying over the planet."

She currently serves on the board of the NASA Advisory Council Space Operations Committee and stays busy consulting and speaking circuit.

By USAF Desiree N. Palacios
Air Force News Service
Copyright 2013

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