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She leads U.S. back to space of her dreams

Eileen Collins is headed to the sky as commander of the first post -Columbia shuttle flight.

Published July 4, 2005

[AP photo]
Eileen Collins has no reservations about getting on the next shuttle flight, set for July 13.

When Eileen Collins was growing up in Elmira, N.Y., the United States had never sent a woman into orbit, and it was not training women to become military pilots.

She dreamed about flying anyway, every time she gazed at gliders soaring off nearby Harris Hill, and every time she read a book about Amelia Earhart.

But even she wouldn't have imagined this: Today, Collins is the woman who will lead America back into space.

Collins, a 48-year-old mother of two, will be the commander of the next space shuttle mission. She and six fellow astronauts are scheduled to launch aboard Discovery on July 13, in the first space shuttle flight since Columbia disintegrated in 2003.

"I think she has the most important mission of this century," said retired astronaut Dr. Bernard T. Harris, who flew with Collins aboard Discovery in 1995.

People who know her say Collins is always soft-spoken and always in control. On her first space flight in 1995, she became the first woman ever to pilot a shuttle. On her third flight in 1999, she became the first woman ever to serve as a space shuttle commander.

She also may be the only astronaut whose pilot call sign while serving in the U.S. Air Force was "Mom."

* * *

Collins was in fourth grade when Junior Scholastic magazine asked whether the risks of space flight were worth it.

"As I read that article, I could not understand why anybody would say no," Collins recalled in 1999. "It was obvious to me, as a fourth-grader, that we needed to learn more about space."

Her sister Margaret Conklin, who is a year younger and lives in Orlando, remembers Eileen as "an extremely hard worker, a perfectionist." She can remember her working hard at summer camp to achieve the higher swimming levels, and helping to supervise her younger siblings at home.

So she figured Eileen would become a teacher.

At the time, in the 1960s, American women had not become astronauts and were barred from many areas of military service, including serving as fighter pilots. Nonetheless, Collins immersed herself in reading about flight, including learning about the exploits of Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, during World War II.

After graduating from high school in 1974, she enrolled at nearby Corning Community College, where "she was a sort of a shy, quiet young lady, and one would not have guessed she was going to be a future astronaut," recalls retired professor Daniel Hoover, who taught her calculus.

But she was a dedicated student.

"I never met anyone that young that was as focused and knew what she wanted to do," said Gene Freid, who knew Collins after she enrolled at Syracuse University.

Freid was commandant of cadets for the Air Force ROTC, and he still remembers Collins sitting down with him and asking for a two-year scholarship.

"I asked her why she wanted a scholarship, and she said she wanted to be a pilot," Freid said.

Becoming a military pilot has always been a competitive business, and the U.S. military at that time was only beginning to allow more female pilots.

But Freid said, "talking to her, I knew that she had perseverance and she wouldn't give up and she wouldn't turn her head and not focus on what she wanted to do. She was that kind of person. She beat the numbers."

Collins took a part-time job at Pudgie's Pizza in Elmira, and not for beer money. She was saving for flying lessons.

A.J. Davis, a former Air Force F-4 pilot, said he became her flight instructor one summer in the 1970s while Collins was a college student, and found her to be "kind of a low-key personality. She's not overbearing or abrasive or anything, she's just a very humble, nice person."

She also demonstrated a talent for flying. Collins was a fast learner and quick to go on her first solo flight, Davis said. She showed "good air sense, a good feeling for the dimensions that an aircraft operates within," he added.

After graduating from Syracuse in 1978 with a degree in mathematics and economics, Collins went into the Air Force and became an instructor pilot aboard the T-38, a two-seat jet used for training Air Force pilots as well as astronauts. She also flew C-141 transport planes.

Collins was still progressing down the Air Force career path in the mid 1980s when she applied for a master's program in operations research at Stanford University.

Professor Donald Iglehart remembers one of Collins' superior officers hinting of her interest in the space program. Iglehart said he jokingly told a colleague, "We should admit her, she's probably going to become the next Sally Ride."

She received her master's degree in 1986 and later made the cut for a coveted slot in the Air Force's Test Pilot School. While there, NASA accepted her into the astronaut program.

* * *

By Christmastime in 2002, Collins had flown aboard three shuttle flights, including a 2002 mission in which the crew deployed a sophisticated space telescope called the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

She also had married Pat Youngs, an Air Force pilot who became a commercial airline pilot, and had given birth to two children, Bridgett and Luke. The family had settled in suburban Houston so they, like other astronaut families, could be close to Johnson Space Center.

In 2002, her son was still a baby, but Collins felt her daughter had grown old enough to learn certain realities of Mommy's job.

So she started talking about the one disaster in the history of the space shuttle program at that time - the 1986 explosion that destroyed Challenger and killed all seven crew members.

"I told her about the Challenger accident," Collins said in a 2004 NASA interview. "She had just turned 7, and she had never heard of the Challenger accident or the crew. So I showed her a picture of the crew, and told her their names and who they were and what they had done, and how they were heroes ... and they, you know, really loved what they were doing. I told her about the accident and how it happened, and I told her (that problem) has been fixed ... and that will never happen again.

"Then, five weeks later, we had the Columbia accident. I had to start that process over with her. That was difficult, but it's going to be a long process. Immediately after the accident, I told my daughter, "Mommy's not going to fly for a long time so I don't want you to worry. We have lots of time to talk about this, and we've got lots of time to figure out what happened and to get things straightened out."

At the time of the February 2003 accident, when Columbia broke apart while re-entering Earth's atmosphere, Collins and most of her current crew already had been selected for the next shuttle flight. It was scheduled to launch a month later.

Now, more than two years have passed since the Columbia accident. As Collins explained to her daughter, lots of people have spent lots of time looking at the problem.

An independent review board concluded that a falling piece of insulating foam caused damage to Columbia 's exterior, dooming the craft as it generated 3,000-degree heat during re-entry. The board also slammed NASA's corporate culture, saying it had overlooked dangers that it should have investigated fully. Some critics still question whether NASA has learned its lesson.

Collins, who recently retired as a colonel from the Air Force, says NASA has improved, and she has no reservations about climbing aboard Discovery when it's time for the next countdown to begin. While acknowledging some risks, she said she wouldn't fly if she didn't feel safe.

"I'm a person who won't even get on a roller coaster at an amusement park because they scare me. I've been on one once, and I won't do it again," she said in a widely quoted comment she made at a news conference at Cape Canaveral in February.

NASA announced last week that Discovery's launch, with Collins and six colleagues aboard, is scheduled for July 13. Among those watching will be her sister, Conklin, a radiographer who is married with four children. She expects to be "praying a lot that they're safe," during launch and landing.

"You have to hope with all the successful launches that they've had that they certainly know what they're doing, and we do trust. Eileen trusts. You have to trust that."

--Curtis Krueger can be reached at or at 727 893-8232. Information from the Associated Press and Florida Today was used in this story.

[Last modified July 4, 2005, 04:43:26]

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