Astronauts are traditionally trail blazers. But for Col. Eileen Marie Collins (USAF), her career has been historic, too: This month, the Space Shuttle’s first woman commander completed a historic "Return to Flight" mission as NASA recovers from the 2003 Columbia disaster.
She’s a classic example of someone who always knew what she wanted to be as a grown up. As a little girl, she recalls her first inspiring memories of the Gemini space program in the mid-1960s.
She devoured books about flying, especially Amelia Earhart, and used to come straight home from school and watch "Star Trek" whenever she could. By her high school years, Collins worked at a local pizzeria to pay for flying lessons.
Soon, she grew enamored with serving one’s country, and not letting her gender be an obstacle.
"When the Vietnam War was over, and I was older, I started reading about the Vietnam War, and the pilots really became my heroes. As I got older, I started wondering why we didn’t have women in these fields," she said.
"With a great desire to join the military, I decided to join, whether I got to fly airplanes or not." With a BA in mathematics and economics at Syracuse University, she became one of the first women to go directly from college into Air Force pilot training. She has been an instructor pilot, aircraft commander, and graduate from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School in 1990. Finally, Collins was selected for the astronaut program in 1991.
"My advice to young people is, go into the field you are most interested in. If you love your job, you’ll do well in your job," she said.
The "Return to Flight" mission was scheduled to test techniques for repairing wing holes like the one that doomed Columbia. NASA’s top spaceflight official, Michael Griffin, is proud of NASA’s preparations and the skillset that Collins’s team brings. "We honestly believe this is the cleanest flight we have ever done. The only other flight that will be cleaner is the next flight," he said in a press conference before launch.
"I have a fantastic crew," Collins said. "The seven Shuttle crewmembers have been so professional in the work that we have done up to this point."
We’re a nation of explorers," Collins said. "We are the kind of people who want to go out and learn new things, and I would say take risks, but take calculated risks that are studied and understood."
A Veteran of three shuttle flights, Collins was also the first female shuttle pilot. In 1995 she piloted the American shuttle team that was the first flight of the joint American-Russian space program.
Looking farther down the road, Collins hopes that her legacy will lead others to space, and that her example will stand as a role model for younger generations.
"The young people are going to be the ones to take us on to more exciting adventures," she was quoted as saying on NASA’s Web site in 2004.
"When I was a child, I dreamed about space – I admired pilots, astronauts, and I’ve admired explorers of all kinds. It was only a dream that I would someday be one of them," she said at a White House ceremony honoring her in 1998.
"It is my hope that all children – boys and girls – will see this mission and be inspired to reach for their dreams, because dreams do come true!"