May 1, 2006

First Woman Shuttle Commander Leaving NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a U.S. space ship, is leaving NASA, the U.S. space agency announced on Monday.

Collins, a veteran of four space shuttle missions, said she wants to pursue other interests and spend more time with her family.

"I leave the astronaut job with great memories but also great expectations for our country's future in space," Collins said in a written statement.

Collins, 49, was an Air Force test pilot before joining NASA as an astronaut in 1991. She became the first woman shuttle pilot in 1995 and four years later became the first female to command a U.S. space ship.

She has logged over 872 hours in space. Her last mission was as commander of the July 2005 flight of Discovery, the first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

"Eileen is a gifted leader who knows what it takes to get a team through the most difficult of times," said astronaut Ken Bowersox, head of NASA's Flight Crew Operations office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.

Collins led the mission last July that NASA hoped would put the manned spaceflight program back on track after the Columbia accident. The agency had planned to resume construction of the International Space Station after that flight but new fuel tank problems forced managers to ground the fleet.

Foam insulation that fell off the tank during launch of Columbia caused heat shield damage that led to the shuttle's destruction and the deaths of seven astronauts on February 1, 2003. NASA is planning to launch Discovery again in July.