Interviewed by Jonathan O’Callaghan
Having served as both the first female pilot and first female commander of NASA’s Space Shuttle, Eileen Collins boosted the involvement of women in space exploration to a whole new level.
First mission: STS-63
No. of missions: 4
Time in space: over 872 hours
Born on 19 November 1956, Eileen Marie Collins served as a pilot in the United States Air Force before becoming one of the most decorated astronauts in NASA’s history after her selection in 1990. She served on four separate Space Shuttle missions, including the first American rendezvous with Russia’s Mir space station and the return to flight mission after the Columbia accident. She retired from NASA on 1 May 2006 to pursue private interests but retains an interest in space exploration to this day.
How did you first become interested in space exploration?
It all started when I was nine years old and I was in fourth grade reading an article in a magazine about the Gemini programme. They were profiling the astronauts and the missions, and that was when I really, as far back as I remember, found myself very interested in the space programme. And while I attended summer camp as a child I would visit the glider field and we’d watch the gliders take off. So there was a little bit of aviation in my background, and I think that’s maybe the roots of my getting interested in aviation and space.
Were you proud to be selected as the first female Space Shuttle pilot?
Well, back in 1989 I interviewed for the job of Space Shuttle pilot and in January 1990 I talked to John Young and he told me that I was selected, and also I was going to be the first woman pilot. It was 16 January 1990, I remember the date. I went through training from the summer of 1990 to the summer of 1991, and it was September 1993 when I was actually assigned to a flight and then that mission [STS-63] didn’t fly until February 1995. Then of course there was a lot of attention. Was it a proud moment? I would say yes, but not for me as much as it was, I think, for the space programme and for women in general. Even though women had flown in space as mission specialists no women had flown yet as a pilot. I think it was a good step for women in general overall, and I’ve actually had women that worked in the Kennedy Space Center say to me that now that I’ve done what I’ve done they are getting more respect from their male co-workers.
Did other female astronauts inspire you?
Oh, yes, definitely. Sally Ride, she was a role model for me and she flew in 1983 and again the next year. And Valentina Tereshkova, who I met in 1995, she was the first woman in space and then Svetlana [Savitskaya] was the first woman to do a spacewalk, and the third Russian woman was Yelena [Kondakova]. But the Russians have only flown three women in space, while the Americans have flown [over 40]. So Russia needs to start getting some women in their programme, I’m really surprised that they are not doing that.
Has there been a shift to a more inclusive astronaut programme in America?
Yes, inclusive in the sense of what you look like is not important. It’s kind of silly for me to say this because it’s so well accepted and part of our culture now, but what you look like, man or woman, colour of your skin, or other factors about you are not as important as your ability to contribute to space exploration. So your experience, your college degree, your motivation to help with space exploration, that is far more important than all these other things. From the mission side it’s all about getting the right people to make the mission safe and successful.
Could the first person on Mars be a woman?
That’s going to be a difficult decision, who is going to be the first person to step on Mars, because you saw what happened to Neil Armstrong. He became a huge celebrity because he was the one who put his foot down there first, and even though Buzz Aldrin was with him Buzz went second. To me I don’t know if it makes that much difference which one steps down first, but Neil was the commander so he went first. So somewhere along the line we have to pick who will be the first one to step on Mars. My question is will it be an American, because whether it’s a man or a woman, I don’t know if that’s important to me. I mean, I would like to see a woman [be first], I think it’d be wonderful to see a woman as the first person to walk on Mars, but I think it’s more important that the US makes a commitment to be the first country there, because otherwise we’re going to lose our leadership. I believe that China has the ability to be the first country on Mars, and I think there are even some other countries out there that could be first that are showing interest in a strong space programme. The US has some good ideas but I think we need a better commitment in our budget. The other question is will it be a country or a private company, because it could also very well be a private company that send their people first. So who knows! The future is very exciting, we just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Is the commercialisation of space a good thing?
Yes, in fact having private industry go to LEO [low Earth orbit] is going to save us, because our country does not have the budget to continue to service the [ISS] and do deep space exploration. So I think that’s definitely the way to go, have private industry service the space station with people and cargo, and use NASA’s budget to do the things that maybe the private industry isn’t willing to do right yet.
Do you think NASA’s goal of exploring deep space with the Orion and SLS is a good one?
Yes, I do, I really do. I think that it’s a little more traditional but I think that it is the right goal. The biggest risk is the loss of commitment in the investment, if it gets de-funded in the budget like Constellation in 2010, which was the programme to [take humans] back to the Moon. Now, instead of going back to the Moon they’re talking about going to asteroids, but I think it is the right way to go. Deep space is an important thing for us to do, to continue to explore and get people off the planet and find out what’s out there.
What was that first mission, STS-63, like?
It was a difficult mission because we were the first Americans to see the Mir space station in 1995. We were doing something for the first time, a rendezvous [between the Shuttle and Mir], but we didn’t dock, we just did the rendezvous and the close approach. The whole thing was to test out the Shuttle’s flying ability, the rendezvous trajectory, our navigation aids and the communications systems. We were the test flight for the couple of flights after us that did the first docking. So because it was such a test flight, and so many of the things were done for the first time, it was a difficult mission to develop. Plus we had to do a lot of negotiating with the Russians. The main question from the crew’s point of view was how close were we going to go. We were going to go to 1,000 feet [from Mir], then we negotiated to 100 feet, and in the end we negotiated to 30 feet. So the actual rendezvous itself went to 37 feet. And that was not easy, getting everyone to agree it was safe to go that close. But frankly we made the docking missions a lot safer with less unknowns by us flying [closer]. That was the biggest challenge, co-ordinating to get that close, and then of course one of the most exciting things about the mission was for us to be able to look out the window and wave at the cosmonauts and take pictures. It was just kind of fun.
Was it a surreal moment being that close to Mir for the first time?
It was but I’m going to tell you, I was very nervous during the whole thing because you never know when you do something for the first time what’s going to break, if you’re going to have an emergency or malfunction. So I was a little bit nervous about the whole thing and rightfully so. But once we did the close approach we were in there at 37 feet, we waved at them, and it just really felt like we had accomplished so much. And then my commander Jim Wetherbee made this radio call that I’ll never forget, it was something like ‘as we bring our spaceships together, we are bringing our nations together’ [laughs]. He said that while he was flying just 37 feet away from Mir. That was one of my biggest memories.
What were some of the highlights from your other three missions?
On my second mission [STS-84, May 1997] we docked with Mir, and I think the highlight was just being on the Mir space station, which was very old at that point in time. But it was very comfortable, very liveable, and I enjoyed being there. My third mission [STS-93, July 1999] the highlight without a doubt was the [successful deployment of] the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Between NASA and TRW [the aerospace company that built Chandra] it was a fantastic observatory and I’m so proud to say that my crew was able to take it up safely and deploy it. It was built for a five-year mission and it’s up there extended for 15 years now. My fourth mission [STS-114, July-August 2005] was getting the Space Shuttle flying again after the Columbia accident [on 1 February 2003]. Sometimes I look back and I can hardly believe I did all that. Was I part of the teams that made those amazing missions happen? It’s hard to believe I was, and here I am today retired looking back at it.
Were you nervous on that return to flight mission after the Columbia accident?
Of all the flights I think the one that concerned me the most was the first one doing that Mir rendezvous. That might have just been the fact that it was my first flight in space, and there were a lot of unknowns with it being my first flight. For my last mission I was tremendously confident. I was the commander, I had flown three times before and I really knew what I was doing. Of course you always have an unknown but I think experience really gives you a strong feeling of confidence, which I think is very important. If you’re the leader, as the commander, you’re not only the leader of your crew on the mission but you’re setting the tone for all the people working in the programme around the planet. So I was truly very confident and ready to fly that mission. I wasn’t going to accept the mission and fly it until I was convinced that we were going to have a safe and successful flight. Now, there were some unknowns. We did repair tests in space for the first time and we did an inspection of the exterior of the Shuttle heat shield for the first time. There were a lot of firsts on that mission, but I was very confident in my crew, I knew them very well and they were all very smart and dedicated, so I think my last mission was probably the one that I had the most confidence in.
Were you sad to see the Shuttle retired?
Yes, very much so, I was very sad to see it retired. I still believe the Shuttle could have flown longer than it did, but it was not promoting a change in the policy. I think it was around 2008 that I was on the NASA Advisory Council and the Shuttle programme manager said, ‘if you want to change your mind about retiring the Shuttle you need to tell me right now because I am closing out contracts, the pipeline for supplies is shutting down, certain supplies just aren’t being made any more and the decision is being made where we’re at the point of no return’. The longer we waited to change our mind on Shuttle retirement the more expensive it was going to be to start that programme back up again. And when we got to 2010 and people started saying ‘oh, Constellation is cancelled, Ares 1 is cancelled, now we have no way to get to the space station, let’s keep the Shuttle flying’, well yeah maybe that would have been the right thing to do but it was extremely expensive at that point to try and keep the Shuttle flying again. Basically the right decision at that point was to keep shutting down the Shuttle programme. By the time we got to 2010 it was just too expensive and just extremely ineffective to change our minds. So I agreed with the decision to shut down the Shuttle, as sad as it was, and I’m sorry that it had to happen the way it did.
Are there exciting times ahead, though?
Yeah, I think the Orion [spacecraft] and the Space Launch System are going to fly. It’s going to be expensive but space programmes cost money. Should we do it? Yes, without a doubt, we definitely need to do it. I don’t want to see it stretched out and delayed any more. If you stretch it out it just gets more expensive. So yes, they should fly, yes they should stay on schedule, and they will have some problems but that’s what you expect from a new programme. When they have problems we shouldn’t just cancel the programme, we need to fix the problems and keep going. I don’t like the idea of giving up on something because it’s not as perfect as we thought it was going to be. I mean nothing’s perfect, you just need to stick with it, make it right and make it safe and get it flying.
Are you still involved in space?
Yes, very much so. I stay up to speed with what’s happening and I’m joining a board that works for the National Academies called the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. When you jump to a new career field you’ve got a great big learning curve and it takes a lot of time, but I enjoy human spaceflight so I try to stay mostly involved in that area.