Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Today in history.

On July 23, 1999, space shuttle Columbia lifted off to begin STS-93. This, the 95th mission of the space shuttle program, was important for several reasons. First, it carried as its payload the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which, like the Hubble Space Telescope, would in time allow us to significantly increase our understanding of the universe. (As a bonus, we are still getting some amazingly beautiful photos out of the deal.)

Most importantly, this mission was the first to be commanded by a woman, and what a remarkable woman she is.

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

Even though the Collins family struggled mightily in Eileen's formative years, she was still able to attend Catholic schools due to her parents' sacrifice and hard work. In the afternoons, Eileen would rush home from St. Patrick's School and then Notre Dame High School in time for Star Trek and Lost in Space. It was from Star Trek that she developed her interest in flying and space travel, her mother later said. At young Eileen's request, her parents would take her to the Elmira Regional Airport to watch the planes take off and land.

Eileen knew she would need money if she wanted to earn her pilot's license. Father Eagan, the pastor at St. Patrick's, knew money was tight in the Collins household and gave Eileen a job counting the collection envelopes. Father Eagan would remain a very influential person in Eileen's life, and she still considers herself "very religious."

In an earlier interview, her parents described their daughter as "a very ordinary person, a down-to-earth individual. She's very thoughtful. Nobody handed her anything. Everything she is today, she's earned."

When Eileen was just nine years old, her parents divorced. After her father lost his job, the Collins family was forced to go on food stamps and live in public housing for a time. "The food stamp program did what it was designed to do, which is help people get through hard times in their lives," Collins said.

Eileen had the astronaut bug from childhood, but she never told anyone her dream. Though she knew the astronaut corps consisted of only men, she never let that bother her. "I'm not sure why. I'm not going to try to analyze it. I just figured there were only men, but I still wanted to do it. And I didn't think there was any reason a woman couldn't do it." Collins says she never told anyone her dream because she absolutely refused to hear, "You can't do that."

" I didn't want to fight it. And when I started my flying lessons, I didn't tell my friends. I don't even think I told my parents."

When Eileen was a teenager, she got a job at a pizza parlor. By 1977, she had saved enough money to take flying lessons and get her pilot's license. The following year, she graduated from Syracuse University. With good grades, flying experience, and a letter from her ROTC supervisor, she became one of the first women to go straight from college to the US Air Force pilot training program.

In 1990, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins was selected to the NASA astronaut training program as a member of Selection Group 13, the "Hairballs."

In 1995, Collins was selected to pilot STS-63, the first time a woman was chosen for the job. During STS-63, Discovery rendezvoused with the Mir Space Station. Collins would later visit Mir on STS-84 as well.

On July 26, 2005, Collins commanded STS-114, the emotional "Return to Flight" following the Columbia disaster. During this mission, Collins became the first shuttle commander to perform a "Rendezvous-Pitch Maneuver", wherein a shuttle pilot performs a "backflip" near the International Space Station, allowing the ISS crew to photograph the underbelly of the orbiter to check for damage which may have occurred during liftoff.

[Below: Cdr. Eileen Collins performs the first Rendezvous-Pitch Maneuver ever.]

Collins retired from both NASA and the USAF in 2005, citing a desire to spend more time with her husband and two small children. Her daughter, she once said, "thinks all moms fly the space shuttle."

Here's to Lt. Col. Eileen Collins, who refused to take "No" for an answer, even from herself.
The space program (and indeed the world) are better for having her.

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