Taking it to the Stars: Eileen Collins, Space Shuttle Commander

March is both Women’s History Month and Irish American Heritage Month. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. 

The Irish have had a profound influence on the history of the United States. During Irish-American Heritage Month, communities and cultural organizations across the country celebrate their collective heritage, ancestry, and accomplishments. Today, we feature one prominent Irish-American: Eileen Collins. 

On February 3, 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, flying the Discovery to the Russian Mir space station. On July 23, 1999, she became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. STS-93 was launched with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory payload. The newest space telescope since the Hubble would capture X-rays not yet seen in deep space images. The mission was a major success, capturing astonishing images and new data. Collins’s final space flight was commanding the “Return to Flight” mission, the first since the space shuttle Columbia disaster. 

STS-93 Commander Collins demonstrates her weightlessness on the middeck. (National Archives Identifier 23178677)

Eileen Collins came from Elmira, New York. One of four children, her ancestors immigrated from County Cork, Ireland. She always had a fascination with flight, and as a child, she remembered saying that she wanted to be a pilot and astronaut. The passion for flying remained with her after graduating from Syracuse University. She joined the AFROTC and was one of four women picked for Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance Air Force Base.

Her flying skills evolved quickly, and she became an adept pilot, eventually becoming an instructor for T-38 Talon jets. In 1986 she was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and not long after, she became the second woman to be accepted in the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (the first was Capt. Jacquelyn Parker). Collins spent nearly four years at the academy, and in 1990, NASA selected her as an astronaut with the NASA Group 13 class. 

Collins on middeck on STS-63. (National Archives Identifier 23894155)

Collins underwent years of astronaut training with NASA and became fully qualified to pilot the Discovery. She was the first woman to pilot the shuttle on the STS-63 mission and dock with the Russian Mir space station. Its purpose was to conduct flight, communication, and astrobiology tests. Astronauts also got to enjoy Coca-Cola for the first time in zero gravity by testing the Fluids Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus-1 (FGBA-1). Soda was dispensed in a concentrated dose, but still enjoyable as Collins remembers.

Pilot Collins and MS Titov with papers from Thermal Impulse Printer System. (National Archives Identifier 23894133)

STS-63 was a success for Collins, NASA, and the Russian Space Agency. Two years later, Collins piloted the space shuttle Atlantis for STS-84. It was the sixth mission to dock with Mir with the purpose to bring supplies and equipment. Scientific experiments on microgravity, biology, and navigation were also part of the mission.

Collins’s third space flight was another milestone both for her and for NASA as STS-93 launched the Chandra X-Ray Observatory into orbit with Collins in command. The mission experienced some setbacks, however. The original launch meant for July 20, 1999, was abruptly canceled when the countdown sequence was manually cut off by an operator. Dangerous levels of hydrogen gas leading up to the main ignition of the space shuttle engine were noticed by the operator, who shut them down.

On July 23, the mission lifted off, but a pin was knocked loose and ruptured some cooling tubes in the engine. A set of failsafe measures were initiated, which saved the entire crew from a potential catastrophe. The shuttle safely flew into orbit, and the remainder of the mission occurred without incident. 

President Clinton shakes hands with Lt. Col. Eileen M. Collins in the Roosevelt Room after having announced her as the first woman space mission commander, 3/5/1998. (National Archives Identifier 183374036)

Collins spent 16 years with NASA pursuing her career of space exploration, flight, and scientific research. In 2003, following the Columbia disaster, NASA and its astronauts underwent substantial changes to its organizational and technical procedures. Astronauts also learned new emergency protocols and received additional engineering training on how to fix structural problems in flight. 

On July 26, 2005, the STS-114 “Return to Flight” mission launched from Kennedy Space Center. The purpose of the mission was to dock with the International Space Station and bring supplies along with new scientific experiment equipment. Collins again served as commander and hit another major milestone; she performed the first rendezvous pitch maneuver with the shuttle. The maneuver was designed to expose the underside of the shuttle and search for any structural damages to the heat shield. It requires very skilled piloting in order to keep the shuttle in view of the space station and not collide with it. Collins successfully performed the first rendezvous pitch maneuver and docked with the station flawlessly. 

Collins left NASA in 2006 to pursue other interests, but she always kept her passion for spaceflight and scientific research. She received numerous awards from NASA and private organizations for her accomplishments and heavily advocates for continued space exploration. In an preflight interview before STS-114, she commented on the future of space flight: 

“I would like to see more people traveling to space someday. I would like to see space tourism blossom. It’s such an incredible experience.” Collins said that during her spaceflights, there is so much she has to do that there is little time to just enjoy being in space. “Someday I would like to go into space as a tourist, and have the time to have fun.” She’s very interested in developments in the field of civilian spaceflight, such as the X Prize competition. “I just think that’s really exciting. That’s an experience that more people ought to have. I think we’d have a better community on Earth if more people traveled in space.”

For the full interview, visit NASA Explores–Eileen Collins.

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