What It Was Like to Become the First Woman to Pilot and Command a Space Shuttle

Eileen Collins talked to Smithsonian about her career in the Air Force and NASA, women in aerospace and more

Eileen Collins in space in 1995, when she became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. (NASA via Getty Images)
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“Houston, Columbia. Wheels down,” said Col. Eileen Collins, 20 years ago, just as the space-shuttle mission she’d commanded landed smoothly at the Kennedy Space Center. Over the crackly radio, a NASA colleague congratulated her and the team for its “outstanding” five-day mission. They’d successfully launched Chandra, the world’s most powerful X-ray telescope (a title it holds to this day) and the largest satellite the shuttle had released. Collins’ role in STS-93 was historic too—she’d become the first woman to command a space shuttle mission.

The distinction was another first in a career full of them. Collins, who grew up in Elmira, New York, was among the vanguard of female pilots who joined the Air Force in the years after it opened pilot training to women. In 1995, she became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, and later, in 2005, she led the “Return to Flight,” as the first mission after the fatal Columbia disaster was known. Today, artifacts from her career are held in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. As Chandra celebrates 20 years of monitoring the universe, we caught up with Collins, who retired from NASA in 2006, about her experiences in NASA and the Air Force, the Space Race anniversaries being celebrated this year and more.

Smithsonian Magazine:
You recently wrote the foreward to
The Space Race: The Journey to the Moon and Beyond, a book about the history of American space exploration. This year, we've seen the Apollo anniversary and the 20th anniversary of a space shuttle mission that you were involved with, STS-93, that launched the Chandra X-ray Observatory. What do these anniversaries make you think about?

Eileen Collins:
On the day of the first moon landing, July 20th, 1969, I was just a child, and I remember how inspiring the space program was to me. I especially admired the astronauts, not just the Apollo astronauts, but the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. Remember, the Mercury program flew in the early 1960s, and then the Gemini program was kind of a bridge to the Apollo program. And all of those astronauts were a great inspiration to me; I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to learn how to fly, do well in school and math and science, and join the military, become an Air Force pilot, become a test pilot, and then lead into the astronaut program.

The Chandra was launched on the shuttle Columbia on July 23rd of 1999, almost on the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing. The three astronauts from Apollo 11 attended our launch. So Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were all there for the first launch attempt. I thought that was pretty inspiring that we were able to have those two events happen so close together.

The Chandra Observatory was built and certified for five years, but it is still operating 20 years after launch, 15 years past its original life expectancy, and it's still working at the best of its ability. It's completely functional.

Chandra
Chandra X-ray Observatory, still active today, sits inside the space shuttle Columbia before its launch for the STS-93 mission in 1999. (NASA)

Your job interview with NASA, what was that like? What do you remember most?

The interview was actually in October of 1989, and our class was called in January of 1990 to notify us that we were selected. We began our training in July of 1990. Now as far as the interview itself, there were about 12 people there. I think nine or ten of them were astronauts, and we had a couple of other folks from human resources and people who were also part of the board. It was inspirational to walk into that room and shake hands with all of those astronauts who had flown in space. They were my heroes. They were my role models. They were doing the job that I wanted to do.

You would think that I would be nervous. You know, I think I might've been slightly nervous, but most of all I was excited. I actually didn't think they were going to select me. I was just happy to be there and have the opportunity to be at Johnson Space Center. The whole interview was a six-day process. But there was only one face-to-face traditional type interview. I walked in, I shook hands, sat down and they started asking me questions: "Tell us what you did in high school," which was the first question, to "Tell us about your college years? Why did you want to be a pilot? Why do you want to be an astronaut?" I remember they were asking me questions about my family. They asked about various airplanes that I had flown. It was a very genuine, warm human interaction between us. I never felt intimidated or any negative feelings. All I felt was a very positive feeling that this was a group of people that I really wanted to work with and be with.

What did you do for the other six days of the interviews?

It was 90 percent medical. We flew in on a Saturday night and then Sunday was all psychological testing. You took these different personality tests, like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. I think we took three different personality-type tests. And then beginning Monday, we did all of our medical testing. They tested us for claustrophobia, gave an extremely thorough eye exam, depth perception, colorblindness, on and on. It was five days of medical testing, Monday through Friday. Interspersed in there was the one-hour face-to-face with the astronaut board that I told you about. They took us out to what we call the WETF, the Weightless Environmental Training Facility, and they took us through simulators, mission control. We were also encouraged to go into the astronaut office and walk around and introduce ourselves and get to know people.

How did you react when you learned you were going to be the first female space shuttle pilot?

During the space shuttle years, astronauts were either pilots or mission specialists. When I interviewed, they asked me three, four, maybe five times, "Would you rather be a pilot than a mission specialist?" I was interviewing as a mission specialist, but they knew I was going to be qualified as a pilot. So I told them over and over: “I will do either job.” John Young, who was the previous chief of the astronaut office, called me in January and told me that I was selected, and I had to ask him, "Am I a pilot or a mission specialist? And he said, “You're a pilot, you're going to be the first woman pilot of a space shuttle.”

At the time, I was out at Edwards Air Force Base. I just finished flying solo in an A-7 flight. I had come back to the building, and I saw one of those government phone stickers on the bulletin board and it said: "Major Collins, call Johnson Space Center,” and there was a number there. I called. That’s when they gave me the information. I hung the phone up and I felt a big relief. I didn't feel like jumping up and down or having a party or anything. I just felt a sense of relief and a sense of professional satisfaction that I had achieved something that I had wanted to do my whole life.

Now I'm standing here by myself in this room at the Air Force test pilot school. I walked over to the adjacent room, kind of behind the divider. And the lady there, she was the first person I told. I didn't tell anybody in my class. Then I went home and I told my husband, and the next day I went to work and I had to tell my boss. They were getting ready to assign me to a job within the Air Force but nope, right after graduation I was going to go to Johnson Space Center.

STS-114
The July 2005 launch of mission STS-114, the "Return to Flight" after the Columbia tragedy. (NASA)

When you became the first woman to command a shuttle mission in 1999, you said in an interview, “Eventually, having women in these roles won't be news anymore. It'll be accepted and expected.” You've been in fields that are often male-dominated for a lot of your career. How has that changed from when you started in the Air Force to when you were a commander at NASA?

I think it has changed very, very much. When I was a child, I mentioned to you how I admired the Mercury, the Gemini and Apollo Astronauts. Well, they had no women back then. They were all men. But as a child I would think, well, I'll just be a woman astronaut. It didn't really bother me at all until I was maybe in high school. I realized that women were not allowed to fly in the military. It was against the law for women to fly [combat aircraft] in the military, but there was no law against women flying at NASA. It's just that if you can't get through the military—I mean you need that to go to NASA. So that disappointed me. But then in 1976, the Air Force opened pilot training to women.

Now I also want to say that in 1974, the Navy opened pilot training to women. So the Navy was two years ahead, but I was applying to the Air Force. I graduated from college in 1978, so I was able to apply to pilot training because the Air Force two years earlier allowed women to go to pilot training, but only for a destructor, transport and tanker. Women were not allowed to fly fighters, bombers or any combat aircraft. I was in the first class of women [in pilot training] at my base in Enid, Oklahoma. There were only four of us, and three of us made it through. That was pretty good. You know, not everybody gets through pilot training. It's very demanding.

It was a big culture shock when the women became pilots in the Air Force. The flight suit didn't fit because they're made for men. The men that were already there were really great, the vast, vast majority were fine with having the women in pilot training, but there was a very small number of men that kind of felt like, “It's a man's world, and women shouldn't be here.”

Well, I had a woman employee at the base tell me that the wives didn't want women there. And I was shocked. And I said, “Well, why?”

And she said, “The wives don’t want you here because they don't want you going cross-country with their husbands.” And I thought, “Oh, you know what, they're right.” So, I tried to make it a point to get to know the wives, and I wanted them to know that I was there because I wanted to be a pilot. I wasn't there to break up marriages or to look for a husband—I wanted to be a pilot for the Air Force. Once they got to know us, things were okay. It was just preconceived ideas. They thought of the women pilots, "Snakes, they're looking for a husband." But I think as far as the flying part, the women did very well in pilot training. There really weren't any issues.

You mentioned the flight suits not fitting. This summer they had the first all-female spacewalk planned, and NASA had to cancel that [and then schedule a new all-female walk for the week of October 17th] because of the lack of availability of medium-sized space suit torsos for the two female astronauts. What kind of progress still needs to be made for women in aviation and aeronautics?

That’s a good example that progress still needs to be made, and that isn't really a male-versus-female issue as much as it is a large-versus-small issue. But obviously women tend to be smaller than men. NASA has been wonderful with women as far as the selection, the opportunities, the promotion. Whether you're an astronaut or a scientist or a flight controller or a technician or frankly a janitor, whatever you're doing, the culture at NASA is very good for women because the people that work at NASA are so into the mission. We just love it.

But it doesn't matter what the person looks like. What matters is: What's your part on this team? What are you bringing? What are you doing to make our mission successful? And that is the kind of environment that I loved working in. I can't speak for all women, but that's really what we love is to be able to go in and do our job and contribute and not feel like you're being treated differently just because you're a woman. . . I credit the women mission specialists that flew in the space shuttles before 1990, before I got there, and the women working as flight controllers and engineers and scientists. The work they did made it easier for my generation to really just come to NASA and be part of the mission and not have to feel like we're different.

You commanded the first mission after the tragic Columbia disaster, when seven astronauts died as the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere. What was it like to be under that kind of public expectation or pressure, and how did you deal with that?

The Columbia accident was February of 2003. We flew in July of 2005, so it was almost two-and -a-half years of training and preparing. But it was obviously different from any other mission that I had flown in the past because we also had to deal with the "Return to Flight" aspect of all of the new procedures, which were safety related. It was very challenging technically for us to develop procedures—we had to survey the shuttle once we're up in space, we had to be able to repair certain types of damage, not to mention our normal support of the space station.

So there was quite a bit going on. And how did I handle that? I saw it as a challenge. I saw it as a very important mission to get the United States and the space shuttle back flying in space again. It was my passion for all of that time to make sure that our mission was 100 percent successful, that we planned it right and we executed it right. I pretty much buried myself in that mission, and I told my crew: "You are the best prepared people anywhere in the world, frankly, to fly this mission, and you're in charge.” And I encouraged my crew to have a high level of confidence to make decisions when it was appropriate, to know when to ask for help when it was appropriate and really for us to keep our attitude of teamwork.

By the way, we never forgot the Columbia crew as we were going through our training day-to-day. There were people saying that the shuttle should stop flying completely, cancel the program. I was passionately opposed to that because, well, first of all, I knew that the shuttle could fly safely if we fixed the things that needed to be fixed, and you needed the shuttle to complete the space station. And also for the seven crew members that died on February 1st of 2003, if we just canceled the shuttle program, the message that we sent would be, “Oh, what they were doing wasn't important.” But no, what they did was important. And it was because of that, we had to keep flying the shuttle.

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