July 11, 2005

Discovery’s Commander Cool in Shuttle Hot Seat

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The last time Eileen Collins rode a space shuttle to orbit, an electrical short knocked out the primary computers for two of the ship's three main engines and a hydrogen leak nearly left the shuttle without enough gas to reach orbit.

Collins, sitting in the commander's seat for the first time, successfully oversaw the delivery of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory into orbit, then landed the shuttle Columbia at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 1999.

Columbia had only one more successful flight -- a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 -- before its midair disintegration on Feb. 1, 2003. All seven astronauts aboard perished.

Collins, who will command shuttle Discovery on Wednesday when NASA launches its first scheduled human space mission since the accident, said the best way to honor their memory is to make the space program stronger than it was before.

"We are in a recovery stage and we're ... looking forward to how we can, with this tragedy, make the space program better -- not just the shuttle program, but the space program and the future of our country in space," Collins said.

The 48-year-old Air Force colonel and mother of two did not lobby for her current assignment. She and three of her crewmates prepared for years to fly a resupply and crew-exchange mission to the International Space Station.

Their original launch date was a month after Columbia had been scheduled to land. Instead, the fleet was grounded.

"When we have difficult times -- the post-Challenger period, the post-Columbia period -- I see that's where the best in people comes out," said Collins, NASA's first woman shuttle pilot and commander. "The difficult times increase my sense of commitment."

The shuttle Challenger exploded moments after liftoff in 1986, killing seven astronauts.


Collins grew up in Elmira, New York, the second child of working-class parents who separated when their daughter was 9. Living in public housing and occasionally reliant on food stamps, there was no money for luxuries, such as the flying lessons the child craved.

"Ever since I was a small child, I'd watch the gliders fly overhead," Collins said. "Elmira, with its Harris Hill, is the 'soaring capital' of America, and I was very fortunate to have grown up in that area."

"I think my desire to fly just continued to build," Collins said. "The way I helped satisfy that was to read books."

At 16, Collins worked odd jobs and saved her earnings. By 19, she had socked away $1,000.

"I took that money to my local airport ... and I asked them to teach me how to fly," Collins said. "Very timid, very shy -- there were no other women up there, this was a guy thing. But I wanted to do it anyway."

Collins flew solo after just eight hours of practice. She earned scholarships and took out loans for school and attended a community college before transferring to Syracuse University, where she earned bachelor's degrees in mathematics and economics.

On graduation, Collins joined the Air Force and graduated in 1979 from pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, where she then taught others to fly T-38 jets.

Later, Collins became an Air Force test pilot. She was only the second woman to attend the prestigious school, but she didn't stay long. NASA accepted Collins' first application to become an astronaut.

"I wanted to apply to the astronaut program after the Challenger accident," Collins said. "I thought they needed help and I wanted to be there."

Collins joined the astronaut class of 1990, the first woman NASA accepted as a pilot. She made two flights as the pilot before stepping into the commander's job for the 1999 Columbia mission.

"I have no nerves, no emotion, no pressure," Collins said of her upcoming flight. "I've got a $2 billion spacecraft on my hands. I don't think about what's happening outside."


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