Colonel Eileen Collins (Retired) was NASA’s first female shuttle commander. As of today, 72 women have flown in space, and many of those have cited Collins as an inspiration. Collins retired from the Air Force in 2005 and from NASA in 2006, having logged more than 6,751 hours in 30 different types of aircraft and spent 872 hours in space. She is the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal and was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame, among many other honors. Collins recently served as an advisor to the National Space Council and is a board member of the Astronauts Memorial Foundation.
Collins graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, in 1990. She was selected by NASA and became an astronaut in July 1991. Collins flew the space shuttle as pilot in 1995 aboard Discovery. She was also the pilot for Atlantis in 1997, where her crew docked with the Russian Space Station MIR. Collins became the first woman commander of a U.S. spacecraft with shuttle mission Columbia in 1999, the deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
The trade paperback edition of Collins’ “Through The Glass Ceiling To The Stars-The Story of the First American Woman to Command a Space Mission” was recently published by Arcade and distributed by Simon and Schuster and is available at bookstores everywhere.
Q1. As the first female commander of a space shuttle, you broke the glass ceiling in 1999 when there weren’t many women astronauts at NASA. How did you get the opportunity to pilot the trailblazing mission and what’s your best memory of it?
Colonel Eileen Collins: First of all, I need to credit the women Mission Specialists, beginning with Sally Ride, who flew on the space shuttles beginning in 1983. There were 17 women who flew as mission specialists before I flew as a pilot. They were simply outstanding, and because of their performance, the way was paved for women pilots and commanders. I also should credit all the women pilots before me, including the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII and the Mercury 13 women who passed the difficult astronaut exams in the early 1960s. The timing was right for me, as an Air Force test pilot in 1990, to begin my spaceflight career. As far as my best memory of my first flight as commander, it has to be the successful outcome of that particular mission. A shuttle commander is responsible for the training and preparation of the crew as well as the on-orbit safety and successful execution of the mission. In 1999, when we deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (which was a crew effort), the entire team was thrilled with the success. The observatory was built to last five years, but now has been successfully operating for over 23 years. We were the last people to see Chandra drift off into space, and I still remember the view of the shining, sparkling thermal wrap on that beautiful telescope while it drifted up to its final orbit.
Q2. You learned to fly when you were only 19. When did you know you wanted to become an astronaut? Did your family support you in your aerospace career?
Collins: I was in 4th grade when I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. I was reading a Junior Scholastic magazine about the Gemini astronauts, and I thought they were the “coolest” people anywhere! Because they were military pilots, test pilots, and engineers, I decided that was the path I would also follow. I did not tell anyone about this “dream” because I knew they would say: “You are a girl, you can’t do that!” So, I kept it a secret, until I had to apply many years later. When I applied in 1989, women were more present in space careers, and it was much more acceptable for a woman to be part of these tough engineering fields. As for my husband, he has always been very supportive, and as a military pilot himself, he loves to spread the word to young people about flying and space exploration. When I told my parents I had applied, well, they were a little shocked, but in the end very supportive. To be totally honest, my mother was always a nervous wreck at my launches, but since I was in quarantine prior to launch, I never witnessed her nervousness, but she let me know about it.
Q3. Looking back, was being a woman in a leadership position in a male-dominated field difficult? Did you find the environment at Airforce and NASA encouraging for a woman?
Collins: I have been assigned to many leadership positions in the military, some because of my “time in service,” or just being the senior person in the group. I would say it was slightly more difficult than what a man would face. Sometimes a woman needs to show her competence before the guys “accept” her and trust her. Although I see that is not as much of a problem nowadays as in the past. My experience as a classroom teacher and as an instructor pilot was helpful. I caution people to make sure they have experience in their field before they are in a leadership position, especially in technology and engineering, for their confidence and credibility. Additionally, your team members don’t always want to be told what to do, rather they prefer someone to listen to their problems, and help them with solutions. A leader must be collaborative and competent, and your team won’t care if you are a man or a woman. Finally, I always felt the Air Force and NASA were welcoming places for women.
Q4. From when you became a commander at NASA to today when there is a possibility of landing the first woman on the Moon with the Artemis mission, have you seen the aerospace industry become more accepting toward women? Are we finally reaching gender equity?
Collins: I started flying for the Air Force in 1978. The work environment was very different, as there were few women. Today, women have successfully displayed their competency in every area of work. Despite that, there are still occasions where a woman will face situations where she needs to “prove herself.” I am sorry those situations still exist, but I say take heart: Just do your job to the best of your ability, stay focused on your organization’s mission, and keep a sense of humor. Don’t stress over every silly comments that may come your way. Having said that, my answer is yes, the aerospace industry has come a long way in accepting women, and I am thankful to all the mentors out there who care and give advice to our young engineers. I would not say we are at gender equity yet, but the aerospace industry has enough women that it is not considered unusual anymore.
Q5. In your 28-year distinguished career, what are the some of the key leadership lessons you learned?
Collins: There are different leadership styles. A leader can and should adapt these various styles, depending on the situation. For example, as a space shuttle commander, the best leadership style while planning and training is a collaborative one. I like to talk about three characteristics: Be a good listener, have a sense of humility, and always encourage creative thought. In these planning stages, I had to put the right people in the right jobs, encourage them to speak up, and make decisions in a timely manner after hearing the team’s input. On the other hand, if we were actually in “space” and experienced a sudden emergency, an authoritative leadership style is best, which means quick decision making, based on all that was learned in previous training and a lifetime of experience.
Q6. Can you tell us more about your recently published book, Through The Glass Ceiling To The Stars-The Story of the First American Woman to Command a Space Mission, co-authored with Jonathan H. Ward?
Collins: The book is in the category of memoirs, and I include stories, lessons, and some words of wisdom. One goal of my book is to inspire young people to choose careers in STEM fields, as well as the military. I tell stories of the challenges of flying aircraft and spacecraft, working with highly motivated and talented people, and explain what it feels like to be in space. I also admit to mistakes I made, how I dealt with those mistakes, and recovered and moved on. Additionally, I want to record the historical events surrounding my missions, as well as the lessons learned from the tragic space shuttle Columbia accident. Overall, the book is an easy read, as I planned it to be entertaining and motivating, as well as informative.
Q7. If you had one piece of advice for young women aspiring to pursue a career in aerospace, what would that be?
Collins: Set a “mission” for yourself and write it somewhere where you will see it daily. It can be broad or narrow, but make sure it is challenging but achievable. You can also change it as you progress in your career. So, my one piece of advice is to have a mission. But I must add: I believe failure can be caused by lack of focus on that mission, or allowing too many distractions into your life. Having said that, be sure to have a backup plan, allow for leisure time, and don’t let stress or overwork destroy your optimism and sense of humor.
For more information, visit www.eileencollins.com .