Air Force Veteran Eileen Collins is a NASA astronaut who was the first female pilot and commander of a space shuttle.

Born in November 1956 in Elmira, New York, Eileen Collins remembers the moon landing when she was a child. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, she stated that after reading about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts, she wanted to become one herself. In high school, she kept this goal a secret, aware that it might be a challenge to become an astronaut as a woman. She graduated from Syracuse University in 1978 and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and science.

After the Air Force changed its policy to allow women in 1976, Collins, along with three other women, participated in Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma. She experienced pressure from both the Air Force program and the 450 men on the base. They all watched to see if the women could succeed in becoming military pilots. If these four women failed, the program would be cancelled. In the end, Collins and two other women succeeded, and Collins earned her pilot wings in 1979.

In 1983, she transitioned to the C-141 Starlifter at Travis Air Force Base, California. In 1986, she earned an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University, and in 1989, she earned a master’s degree in space systems management from Webster University.

She attended test-pilot school, a qualification needed to become a shuttle pilot, at Edwards Air Base, California. Although she did not get to meet them, everyone talked of the first class of space-shuttle astronauts, which included the first female astronauts, who visited the base. This inspired her to apply to the space shuttle program and Collins knew she could be the first female shuttle pilot.

In January 1990, she received a call on behalf of NASA from one of her heroes, John Young, who had walked on the moon as the commander of Apollo 16 mission. Young told Collins she would be the first female pilot of the space shuttle. She told Time Magazine she felt a sense of relief following the phone call. She was selected to become an astronaut at the Johnson Space Center.

Collins became an astronaut in July 1991, and on Feb. 3, 1995, Collins became the first woman to pilot a shuttle. She was awarded the Harmon Trophy for the Discovery STS-63 rendezvous with the Russian Space Station Mir during the mission. From May 15-24, 1997, she was the pilot for the Atlantis STS-84. On July 23, 1999, Collins made history as the first female commander of a U.S. Spacecraft while aboard the Columbia STS-93. The shuttle deployed the most powerful X-Ray telescope to this day, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

After the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster killed seven astronauts, rigorous safety measures were established. In 2005, Collins led the Return to Flight mission abroad the Discovery STS-114. She was the first astronaut to complete the rendezvous 360-degree pitch maneuver when docking the shuttle on the International Space Station.

In 2006, she retired from NASA. She has logged over 6,751 hours in 30 different types of aircraft, including 872 hours logged in space flight. She has received numerous awards: Defense Superior Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Meritorious Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster, Air Force Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for service in Grenada, French Legion of Honor, NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, NASA Space Flight Medals, Free Spirit Award and the National Space Trophy.

Collins challenged gender norms to open the door for other women to fulfill their dreams of becoming astronauts. After being inducted to the National Women’s Hall of Fame she stated, “I want to do well because I know that I’m representing other women, other pilots, military pilots as well as civilian pilots who are hoping to come here to NASA and be pilots themselves for the space shuttle.”

We honor her service.

Writer: Hannah Nelson

Editor: Christopher Wilson, Elissa Tatum

Researcher: Crystal Moore

Graphic Designer: Katie Rahill

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Published on Apr. 29, 2021

Estimated reading time is 3.4 min.

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One Comment

  1. Scott Kennedy May 6, 2021 at 12:28 am

    At the bottom of the photo of Eileen Collins, “Astronaut” is mis-spelled “Astonaut”

    [Editor: Well, that’s embarrassing. Sorry, and thank you for bringing to our attention. It has been fixed.]

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