Eileen Collins: The First Female Spaceflight Commander

by Jenny Rowan

Since the start of the Space Race in 1957, almost 600 people have been to space to date. Of those, only 67 have been women. Only five have been their mission’s commander.

The first to be assigned to that coveted crew position was Eileen Collins, an Air Force test pilot who also set several other records during her 16-year career as an astronaut.

Background

Eileen Collins was born on 19th November 1956 in Elmira, New York.

Her interest in aviation began when she was young, and at the age of 19 she used money she had saved from several part-time jobs to pay for flying lessons.

An associate degree in Mathematics and Science, earned from Corning Community College in 1976, was followed by a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Economics from Syracuse University in 1978.

Air Force Career

Following her graduation, Collins was chosen to attend Undergraduate Pilot Training with the US Air Force at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. While she was there, NASA’s first group of female astronauts visited the base to complete their parachute training. Their appearance didn’t go unnoticed by Collins, who realised that becoming an astronaut was now a possibility for her.

Upon earning her pilot’s wings, she first stayed at Vance Air Force Base as an instructor pilot before transferring to California to fly the C-141 Starlifter, a transport plane.

Collins during her stint as an Air Force test pilot
(image: NASA, https://foundationforwomenwarriors.org/eileen-collins-colonel-usaf/)

In 1986 she attended Stanford University to earn a master’s degree in Operations Research. That same year, she was assigned as an instructor pilot and assistant maths professor at the US Air Force Academy.

In 1989 Collins earned a second master’s degree, this time in Space Systems Management from Webster University. Significantly, she also became only the second woman admitted to the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

‘Regular’ military pilots push their aircraft to the limits, but it’s the job of test pilots to find out what those limits are in the first place. They evaluate new aircraft designs by throwing them into extreme situations (high-speed dives, stalls, unusual angles of attack, etc.) to figure out what the plane is capable of and also the best ways of recovering.

Collins remained at the Test Pilot School until 1990, when she applied to and was accepted into NASA’s newest class of astronauts.

First Spaceflight 

Collins’s first mission was in 1995. She was assigned as the pilot for STS-63 (STS standing for Space Transportation System), an eight-day-long mission onboard Space Shuttle Columbia. She was the first woman ever to serve in that role, and was awarded the prestigious Harmon Trophy in.

Space Shuttle pilots were essentially the second in command for their missions, and assisted the commander with manoeuvring the orbiter and, if the mission plan required it, deploying and retrieving satellites.

STS-63 was the first rendezvous between the American Space Shuttle and the Soviet Mir space station, an intricate manoeuvre that Collins helped perform.

Collins sits at the pilot’s seat on the flight deck of Space Shuttle Columbia
(image: NASA, https://images.nasa.gov/details-sts063-312-020)

Second Spaceflight

A second flight followed for Collins in February 1997, this time STS-84 onboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. Collins was once again assigned as the pilot.

Where STS-63 had just rendezvoused with the Mir space station (moving into its vicinity), STS-84 actually docked (physically linked up) with it. The crew ferried materials for experiments to the station and also brought back crucial samples and data to Earth.

Third Spaceflight

Collins’s third spaceflight, STS-93 in July 1999, reunited her with Space Shuttle Columbia, the orbiter she had flown during her first mission as its pilot. This time, however, she was its commander.

NASA had named her as the first ever female commander of a spaceflight. The overall success of the mission and, more importantly, the crew’s safety, was her responsibility.

STS-93’s main objective was to deploy the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the largest payload ever carried by any of the Shuttle orbiters.

To say Collins was thrown in at the deep end would be an understatement.

Just seconds after leaving the launch pad, the voltage in one of Columbia’s electrical buses (which provided it with power) dropped and caused several main engine controllers to shut down. The backup controllers had to quickly take over.

A tiny piece of hardware came loose in another one of the engines and ruptured three coolant tubes. It leaked hydrogen the entire ascent as a result.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the engines also shut down prematurely.

STS-93 made it into orbit, albeit seven miles short of what had originally been planned. Collins could have aborted the mission at any stage, but she held her nerve.

Collins attends to an experiment on Columbia’s mid-deck
(image: NASA, https://images.nasa.gov/details-s93e5016)

Fourth and Final Spaceflight

Following the tragedy involving Space Shuttle Columbia (the orbiter Collins had piloted during STS-63 and commanded during STS-93) in 2003, NASA temporarily halted all spaceflights.

With the thermal protection tiles of its left wing having been damaged by debris during launch, Columbia broke up while re-entering the atmosphere at the end of the mission 15 days later with the loss of all seven astronauts onboard.

Modifications were made to the remaining orbiters to prevent a recurrence and, after a hiatus of two and a half years, NASA named Collins as commander of its ‘Return to Flight’ mission, STS-114. Taking place between 26 July and 9 August 2005, it was flown using Space Shuttle Discovery.

STS-114 added one last ‘first’ to Collins’s CV. After undocking from the International Space Station, she became the first person to fly a Shuttle orbiter through a complete 360-degree ‘backflip’. It allowed the astronauts on the ISS to check Discovery for any damage that might compromise it during re-entry, as had happened with Columbia.

Discovery approaches the International Space Station (image: NASA, https://images.nasa.gov/details-iss011e11257)

Retirement

Collins announced her retirement from the astronaut corps in May 2006 to spend more time with her husband and two children. Across her career as a pilot and an astronaut, she accumulated over 6,700 hours in 30 different kinds of aircraft and also spent a total of 38 days, 8 hours and 20 minutes in space.


About the Author

Jenny is a history blogger and MA Museum Studies student with a particular interest in the science museums and the history of crewed spaceflight. She runs the space history blog Go For Landing and can be found on both Instagramand Twitter.

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