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Reflections of a Space Pioneer: A Conversation with Col. Eileen Collins, USAF (Ret.)

Interview conducted via telephone by Taylor E. Watson on Thursday, March 4th, 2021.

Col. Eileen Collins, USAF (Ret.)

Col. Eileen Collins, USAF (Ret.) is a former astronaut and military instructor and test pilot. An Irish-American native of Elmira, New York, she was among the first women selected to become Air Force pilots in 1978. She was also the first female pilot and first female commander of a space shuttle. She has logged more than 6,750 flight hours in 30 different types of aircraft and more than 872 hours in space as a veteran of four space flights. She holds multiple degrees including a bachelor’s in mathematics and a master’s in space systems management.

She was a pilot on STS-63, which included the first rendezvous of Americans with the Russian Mir Space Station, a pilot on STS-84, the Commander of STS-93, which included deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and was the Commander of STS-114, the “Return to Flight” mission following the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Col. Collins retired from the Air Force in Jan 2005 and from NASA in May 2006 after a multi-decade distinguished career. She currently serves on several boards and advisory panels, is a professional speaker, and an aerospace consultant. She is married with two children. In addition to being a member of the Order of Daedalians, she is also a member of the Air Force Association, Women Military Aviators, Women in Aviation International, U.S. Space Foundation, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Ninety-Nines.

In honor of women’s history month, we interviewed Colonel Collins to discuss the contributions of women to military aviation and their role in the future of flight. With the rise of the Space Force, we also discussed the history of American space exploration, her previous missions, and future challenges and opportunities in space.

THE INTERVIEW:

TEW: What inspired you to pursue a career in aviation?

EC: As time goes by, I realize how important books and reading were for me in becoming interested in aviation. In fourth grade, I was reading a junior scholastic magazine – during class – and read an article on the Gemini astronauts.

They were the coolest guys I’d ever read about, and I wanted to be one of them. I thought, “These men fly airplanes, are engineers, are smart, and are going into space.” It didn’t bother me that there were no women. I just thought, “I’ll be a lady astronaut”. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized women weren’t allowed to be astronauts in those days.

My mom would often leave the four of us kids at the library when she went out to run her errands and do her shopping, etc., I got very interested in reading about military and civilian pilots, men and women. The more I read, the more I wanted to learn. I was young and found it all fascinating and could read for hours at a time. I realized I was especially interested in military pilots. In high school, I found I was reading about WWII missions and WWI missions, when we were just learning how to use airplanes. I honestly became interested in flying because of books.

Additionally, I’m from Elmira, NY which has the National Soaring Museum. There was a place called the Harris Hill glider field and airport where pilots would fly gliders. My dad would take us to out there and we would watch the airplanes tow the gliders up and then would watch them land. He would also drive us to the to the Regional Airport and we watched commercial planes take off and land. By him doing that, he tended the seed that had been planted from all the reading I was doing.

TEW: How did your background and upbringing influence your future career path and choices?

EC: I give a lot of credit to my parents. In addition to taking me to watch gliders and planes, my dad was in the Navy. He joined in 1945, just after he turned 18 on his July 4th birthday. He only spent a year serving because, the war was over, but he shared that he wished he would have stayed and done his career in the military.

My mom was never in the military, but even though she was born in 1927, she was very independent. My parents split when she I was 9, and though my dad was part of our lives she was pretty much a single mother during the week. She did a great job; she made time for us, talked with us, and helped us out. As I was growing up, something that stood out was my mother’s independence. She always seemed to know what she was doing and was very decisive. She would say “We are going to the library, shopping, you’re doing summer camp, a pool at state park, we’re all going to Atlantic City or Niagara Falls,” and we would go do it. She set up all these activities, and was decisive, independent, someone who did things. Even though she struggled with health problems, she was very outgoing and interested in things, and still worked to make things happen.

As a kid, I was also painfully shy. I was not a particularly successful kid – I never made choir, didn’t make the cut in athletics, was cut from the cheerleading team, etc. It wasn’t so much that I was uncoordinated as I didn’t really have anyone to help me work on these skills to become good enough.

I think these “failures” as a young person, though painful at the time were better for me in the long run. I learned to persevere and focused on “Hey, what can I do?”

When I started taking flying lessons, I realized “You know I’m kinda good at this.”  I was always good at any of the part time jobs and flying. Things not coming as easily to me growing up helped me stay focused when I realized was going to stick with flying.

TEW: What was joining the military like for women when you got started?

EC: Women were a minority back then as they are today. I wanted to fly, but I was also interested in the military life. I liked the idea of having a more structured life, more genetic than a choice, perhaps. I liked knowing what was required of me, what I was responsible for, and enjoyed being on a team where everyone knew their part instead of flailing. That organized, structured, lifestyle appealed to me.

I actually really liked Basic Training. It was hard, but I liked the fact that we knew what was expected of us. My first experience in Basic Training was a six-week program for ROTC cadets at Rickenbacker AFB in Ohio. I was 19 years old.

An interesting memory, and my first of Basic: I showed up on the bus from the airport at Rickenbacker. As I was getting off the bus, there was a young woman my age with long blonde hair getting on with her bags. I asked where she was going and she said, “I’m joining the Navy.” I went and took my first look at the barracks and saw how kind of bleak and unfriendly it was and thought “that girl just quit.”

No one else quit. The rest of us made it through the six weeks. While it wasn’t fun, exactly, I liked it. Going through the experience made me feel like I’d accomplished something, and I learned a lot about myself. I completed basic training in 1976 and two years later earned my degree and commissioned. Ultimately, I am really glad that I chose to do this; I stayed in the military for twenty-six years.

Thinking back, I wish that girl who got back on the bus would have stayed – maybe she gave up too soon.

TEW: What was the pilot training selection process like for the first classes of women?

EC: I was in the third or fourth class overall of women entering pilot training in the Air Force as part of their test program to see if women could do this. The first class in 1976 had selected women who were already serving as active duty personnel. My class in 1978 was the first selected right out of college. There were eight of us, and we had to compete before a board and interview before we were selected. Four of us went to training at Williams AFB, AZ. Four at of us went to training at Vance AFB, OK.

The members of our class were the first women to ever attend pilot training at Vance, and we were a sight to behold. You could tell a woman walking around in a flight suit was a sight never before seen. I mean, we turned some heads and would get looks at the Commissary, Base Exchange, etc., The four of us did pretty much the same as the men. Only one of us didn’t graduate.

Back then, women weren’t allowed to fly in combat, which limited our choices coming out of pilot training. I decided to stay on at Vance as an instructor pilot in the T-38. At some point, the “test program” for women was terminated, as women had proved they could be successful at this.  From then on, women went through the same selection process as the men. However, the training for the women back in the early days was identical to the men. There was no difference and no extra or less help with the material and requirements. That’s the way it should have been.

TEW:  What was your pilot training experience like?

EC: There were some rules for us. The wing commander put a restriction on our doing public affairs interviews, speeches, etc. while we were in training. The Air Force had us come to Vance a few days early, and any questions from the media had to be before we started the program. There was to be no interaction with the media to avoid distraction for both women and men.

Throughout the rest of it, I felt very included in activities, all the training, anything. We were invited to parties, social gatherings, etc., and felt part of the life, the culture, the whole experience. I think my attitude when I arrived at pilot training was to work to become the best pilot I could be, you know whatever it takes.  I was 100% focused. Things that didn’t pertain to this #1 mission went by the wayside.  I wasn’t there to compete, make a name for myself, or anything like that, I just wanted to fly.

I was the first in my class to solo out of the forty of us.  No one pushed me and I didn’t have that explicit goal, it just kind of worked out that way. Back in those days, after soloing, they would spray you down with a hose. I remember I did not want to be sprayed down with the hose. Instead of going to the parachute room after my flight, I went back and walked over to BOQ and sat there with my parachute and helmet.  At some point I realized, “I can’t avoid this – they’re going to hose me down”. So, I walked back, still with my parachute and helmet, and they grabbed me and hosed me down.

I remember an instructor told me, “We’re really glad the women are here, because the guys are trying harder.” You know, the guys didn’t want the girls to show them up. The instructors really liked our attitude of really trying as hard as we could – no excuses. That helped impact the way our male counterparts approached training as well.

TEW: When did you decide you wanted to pursue becoming an astronaut? What was the application and selection process like?

EC: Though I had always wanted to be an astronaut, I made a clear decision to apply the same month that I started pilot training. In September 1978, NASA sent astronauts to Vance to do parachute training. This happened a mile away from the flightline. This “Class of ’78” also known as the “FNG” had the first group of women astronauts ever. There were six of them who were going to be mission specialists.

As you can imagine, this got a lot of coverage in the local news. Though I was kind of aware this had happened, I was now hearing more and more about them and could feel the momentum around this. At this point, I knew I was going to apply to the astronaut program as a pilot. I was 21 years old.

TEW: What was the culture at NASA like while you were in the astronaut office? What was the culture like for women?

EC: I completed my first application in 1983, but I never sent it in as the timing wouldn’t have worked out with the Air Force. In 1989, I applied again and was selected in 1990. How this works is that your USAF commander must forward your name to an Air Force Board, that board makes selections, then names candidates to the astronaut board for interviews. That year, they interviewed one hundred applicants. Twenty-three of us were selected, and I was selected as a pilot, and was the first women pilot NASA selected.

The experience of starting training at NASA was very much the same if not identical to training at Vance. We got there early and did all interviews and public affairs the first day. We were then off limits for the next nine months of training. They wanted us to be focused just on training. Once we finished our training, we were eligible to be interviewed again.

In my group of twenty-three, there were seven pilots, and I was the only woman pilot. Sixteen were mission specialists, and of those four of them were women. Among them were Susan Helms, who would eventually go back to AF and make three stars. Others included Nancy Currie, Janice Voss, and Ellen Ochoa, who would go on to become the Director of Johnson Space Center. No one treated us differently because we were women. We got the same training, and the guys we trained with were great.

In my experience, the culture at NASA for women was excellent, not just in training, but throughout my whole career there. People didn’t care what you looked like when you walked into a meeting. What mattered was, “What are you bringing to this meeting? How are you contributing to this project? How are you taking us to successful completion of the mission?”

I loved working in that environment. For those of us in the astronaut office, including the other women I worked with, we loved what we were doing. The expectation was that you would be sharp, professional, and part of a team. While it wasn’t perfect, it was very enjoyable and kind of unique to that culture. Personally, I didn’t experience rude comments or inappropriate activity. Not that it didn’t happen, but it wasn’t something that we felt as much at the astronaut office.

TEW: What was your first trip in space like? Are there any particular memories or lessons learned that stand out to you from that experience?

EC: I was very confident in my first launch and felt very prepared. I’d been training for four and a half years, done simulators over and over, and spent a year and a half helping other crews get into shuttle. Plus, you sit through all the debriefs for all the flights. Overall, I felt very well prepared.

A launch is an overwhelming experience. The actual event itself is very loud. It sounds like you’re in a room on fire with all this burning going on around you. My first launch was at night. As engines burn around you, they reflect, and it looks like you’re flying through a thunderstorm. There is so much shaking when you fly through the jet stream – you could never read anything you’d written.

I remember thinking after being up there four days – we were working very, very hard and had no time to reflect until we slowed down a bit – how easy it was to move around. I remember thinking, “My grandmother could come up here and do everything.” She was eighty-nine at this point and had trouble moving around – had trouble just fighting gravity – in simple things like doing dishes. In space, she could have done everything. Space would be good for the elderly.

On that mission, we were the first Americans to see the Russian space station Mir in 1995. Mir means peace in Russian, and this was a joint program with dockings and crew exchanges on their space station. I was honored to be on the mission. We learned how to work with Russians. Lots of negotiations took place to make this happen, and the crew was included and involved in those negotiations so we could be have impactful conversations about what we can realistically do. Diplomacy is a key word, as we had to be diplomatic in working with Russian partners. The mission was a great lesson in this, as we came to understand culturally, they’re hard negotiators. In the end, they wanted the same things we wanted, they just didn’t want to let us know that.

TEW: Your last flight in summer of 2005 was the “Return to Flight” mission. What was that experience like?

EC: The Columbia disaster happened in February of 2003. For some context, my crew was five weeks from another launch when that accident happened. The shuttle program was almost cancelled after that accident, so STS-114 was truly a test flight.

I had to use my test piloting and all my previous flying experiences for the flight. As we prepared, we were writing test plans, testing as much on the ground as we could, redoing those plans, and then testing them again once we were in in orbit. That flight after the accident was a carbon copy. There was a lot of pressure to succeed. So many people around the country involved in getting the space shuttle to fly again. It was an amazing experience.

When there had been discussions about cancelling the shuttle program, I fought it. Those seven astronauts died for a reason. Their chosen job was to explore space. If we shut it down out of fear, it was like saying their sacrifice just wasn’t important enough. It was critical to finish building the space station. The whole reason for these missions was to build that space station. In 2003, it wasn’t even close, maybe not even 50 percent done.

The space station was being built, because if humans are going to go to moon or Mars, work there, use them for commercial purposes, we need to have a space station to test technologies for long duration flights. We also need to test the capabilities of human bodies to adjust to those long flights. Important Earth learning also happens. Finishing the space station was important to find out about things we needed to know to continue human exploration of space. The strategy of STS-114 was to get the space shuttle flying again, complete construction of the International Space Station, and learn the unknowns of future solar system exploration.

TEW: How did your experiences in uniform shape your life afterwards?

EC: I learned to deal with difficult scenarios in life by following back on a procedural way of doing things. For example, in an aircraft emergency, there are bold face procedures you commit to memory, so that when an emergency actually happens, you’re not going to panic, you know what to do.

There are a few ways I do this: For making decisions, I have a procedural checklist; when addressing mistakes, I have a checklist for how to handle those developed through experience; and for conflict, I have a checklist for how to approach that conflict to handle it in a way that produces a more successful outcome. When you need to successfully handle a situation or decide something, it helps to fall back on procedural things.

TEW: Who is your biggest role model?

EC: The WASPs were very inspiring. I read about Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love growing up – they got the WASPs started. I realized there were many, many women pilots. It was great for me as a young girl to see this. It helped me understand I was not that unusual.

When I went down to my local airport to see if I could take flying lessons, it was a little awkward to ask. I honestly thought the fixed base operator might say no when I asked if they could teach me to fly. But I went any way and asked. Fortunately, they said “Yeah, come on”, and they took me through ground school, simulators, and taught me. I felt like I could go and do this knowing there were these women pilots who came before me.

TEW: What female aviation role model do you wish more people knew about?

EC: There are so many, but the Mercury 13 come to mind. In 1960, there were thirteen women that did the same physical testing as men and passed. They went on to do more testing, and thought they were going to fly in space. Ultimately that didn’t happen. At the time you needed to have test pilot experience, and that wasn’t possible in the military then, even though they had other flying experience. Unfortunately, they never flew.

Also, all the people that supported space missions in the background and never get publicly recognized. Engineers, flight controllers, public affairs people, their families; they work very, very hard and are rewarded with safe, successful missions but don’t always get recognized for the contributions they make to ensure that happens.

TEW: For you what is the greatest area of concern, and what you are most excited about for space moving forward?

EC: My biggest concern for space is space debris. There is a lot of debris or junk in Earth’s orbit composed of broken up satellites, old satellites. Occasionally old rocket boosters explode. Satellites hit each other. In 2007, the Chinese shot a missile at satellite and blew it up – lots of pieces. This debris can hit other satellites and the space station. The Air Force tracks all of it – when they see a collision is possible, they will call who ever owns a satellite to let them know that space junk is going to hit it. But they only track debris the size of a softball or larger. But something the size of a golf ball can still completely destroy a satellite or kill everyone on the station. The orbital debris problem is not going away. Space situation awareness is a great problem. Additionally, as more stuff goes up, space traffic management is a big deal. With more and more satellites, how will we manage air space down here in atmosphere. Who is in charge of using space in space? No one is in charge of it right now. The Air Force is in charge of tracking it, but who gets to assign the air space? Those decisions will have to be made as space gets more crowded. Who and how will decisions be made?

I’m most excited about landing Americans on the moon not just for a short visit but to stay, and Americans eventually going to Mars. The Chinese could get Chinese astronauts to Mars first. They are working very hard to expand their capabilities in space, both manned and unmanned or “crewed” and “uncrewed”. You have to land on the moon to figure things out before you can get to Mars. A flight to Mars will take six months. We have to figure out the moon first.

TEW: What is your philosophy of public service? How is public service important right now? Do you have any specific recommendations you would make to inspire young people to pursue public service?

EC: Public service – that’s a big question. Broadly, everyone, even children, should do it. People need to realize “You are needed”. You are needed because other people may not be as well off as you and you can do something and have a responsibility to meet that need.

I have two children, and it was important to get both involved in community service, even things like helping at the food bank so they could actually see directly that need exists and they are needed to meet it.

Serving in the military isn’t for everyone. But, I think if you are physically qualified – able – it’s important for young people to take a shot at that. You do give up some years of freedom in life because you have to do what they want you to. However, when you come out the other end, you gain a lot of wisdom from the experience and have contributed something, and learned the importance of doing that.