Space Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins NASA Astronaut, Pilot, and Chandra
Mission Commander for Space Shuttle Columbia - A Tribute
By: John Shepler
"And we have a liftoff, reaching new heights for women
and astronomy." The summer night's sky was aglow with fire,
and the crackling roar of the Space Shuttle Columbia nearly drowned
out the historic announcement by NASA launch commentator Lisa
Malone. In command of Columbia as it departed the Kennedy Space
Center was United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Eileen
Marie Collins, America's first female space shuttle pilot and
now shuttle commander. She is responsible for the safety of the
crew and accomplishment of the STS-93 mission, which is historic
in many ways.
Collins has been entrusted with the AXAF, Advanced X-ray Astrophysics
Facility Imaging System. It is the heaviest shuttle payload yet
at over five tons. The AXAF, now called the Chandra X-ray Observatory,
rivals the Hubble Space Telescope in size and importance. In
its orbit that swings almost 40,000 miles from Earth, Chandra
allows us to see far deeper into the universe. Astronomers
have had at least 18 years of dazzling images and data from
exotic celestial objects such as exploding stars, quasars and
matter being sucked into and destroyed by black holes.
Watching Columbia blast off and race through the night sky
at 8,000 miles per hour was 88 year old Lalitha Chandrasekhar.
Her late husband, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was the Indian-American
astrophysicist known as Chandra, for whom the X-ray telescope
is named. He won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for his theoretical
studies on the physics of stars and is regarded as one of the
most important scientists of the 20th century. He died in 1995.
His name, ironically, means "moon" or "luminous"
Also perhaps ironic is that the name "Columbia"
is considered to be the feminine personification of the United
States, derived from the name Christopher Columbus. Her commander
is the first woman that NASA has put in charge of a space flight
in 38 years of human flight. Other women got to space first,
notably Valentina Tereshkova who orbited in the Soviet Vostok
in 1963 and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space in
1983. But Eileen Collins, 42 years of age, is the first to command
She was born and grew up in Elmira, New York, as the early
days of the space age unfolded in the 1960's. Eileen watched
"Star Trek" and "Lost in Space" on television,
but it was something else that got her excited about flying.
In her teens, she read and absorbed the stories of famous women
aviators, including Amelia Earhart and the WASPS, Women Airforce
Service Pilots who ferried aircraft into dangerous situations
to support the troops in World War II. She was inspired to save
her money and get a pilot's license in 1977. With that, and a
degree in mathematics and economics from Syracuse University,
she was set to follow those brave women into aviation history.
She was one of the first women to go directly from college into
Air Force pilot training.
Eileen Collins became a T-38 instructor pilot from 1979 to
1982, then became an aircraft commander and instructor in C-141
cargo jets at Travis Air Force Base. She met her husband Pat
Youngs while they were flying the C-141s together, and they married
in the Air Force Academy chapel. Eileen might have spent her
career emulating the WASPS she so admired, but an even greater
opportunity presented itself with the space program. Graduating
from the USAF Test Pilot School in 1990, she was selected for
the astronaut program in July of 1991.
Eileen Collins is well prepared for taking command of delivering
the $1.5 billion Chandra to space. She has logged over 5,000
hours in 30 different types of aircraft and has over 419 hours
in space. In February of 1995, she became the first female shuttle
pilot, flying STS-63 to rendezvous with the Russian Space Station
Mir. Her experience was put to the test during the launch of
Columbia, when an electrical short knocked out one set of computers
for the Shuttle's main engines, an instrumentation display in
the cockpit failed and the engines ran out of fuel several seconds
early, leaving the Shuttle in a lower than expected orbit. Collins
took all this in stride and proceeded to release Chandra on schedule
with all satellite systems functioning perfectly. On Sunday,
July 25, she got a call via a ham radio link from commander Viktor
Afanasyev aboard the Mir Space Station. "I would like to
congratulate you from the bottom of my heart," he said,
"You are a courageous woman."
Eileen Collins has achieved the dream she spoke of at the
White House when she was named Space Shuttle commander. "When
I was a child, I dreamed about space - I admired pilots, astronauts,
and I've admired explorers of all kinds. It was only a dream
that I would someday be one of them. It is my hope that all children,
boys and girls, will see this mission and be inspired to reach
for their dreams, because dreams do come true!" And so they
Books of Interest:
Allison Lassieur. Describes how astronauts are trained and how
they live and work in space and discusses some famous male and
female astronauts. Targeted for younger readers.
Women Astronauts with CDROM by Laura S. Woodmansee.
Sally Ride, First American Woman
in Space by Carole Ann Camp.
A biography of Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American
woman to travel in space.
by Sonia W. Black
Find Where the Wind Goes, Moments
from My Life by Mae Jemison.
Dr. Mae Jemison--chemical engineer, scientist, teacher, and
the first African-American woman to go into space--shares the
story of her life. In this autobiography, she traces her life
from her childhood determination to fly into space to when she
made history as she blasted into orbit aboard the space shuttle
Countdown; A History of Space Flight T. A. Heppenheimer.
The race to put a man on the moon provided the perfect metaphor
for scientific achievement, one that challenged and captured
the public imagination. Yet in addition to its science-fiction
glamour, the space race served equally powerful and social objectives.
Countdown provides the first overview of the period that explores
the achievements and failures of all sides of the space race
in their full historical context.