Questions and Answers with Eileen Collins

Eileen Collins is at the pilot’s station of shuttle flight STS-63 preparing to rendezvous with the Mir Space Station

Eileen Collins is a retired Air Force pilot and former astronaut. She has logged over 6,750 hours in 30 types of aircraft and more than 870 hours in space. She’s a pioneering leader—she was the first female space shuttle pilot and first female commander of the space shuttle. She currently works as a professional speaker and aerospace consultant. She answered these cosmic questions about her experiences.

Q: All of the astronauts were male when you were a kid. What gave you the determination to succeed in this field?;

A: I decided I wanted to become an astronaut in 4th grade after reading an article in a magazine. I noticed all the astronauts were male, but that did not deter me. I assumed someday a woman would have an opportunity. It was not until I was in high school that I realized how difficult it actually was. Many women attempted to apply to the astronaut program, but because women were not allowed to fly as military pilots, they did not have the experience required for space. That changed in 1974 and 1976, when the Navy and Air Force, respectively, started training women as military pilots. My timing was good I was actually in one of the first classes of women to attend [Air Force] pilot training. I was determined to be one of the first women astronauts because I love to fly, I love to explore, and I believe there is a great future in space development.


Q: How did you feel before your first launch? Did you have trouble sleeping the night before?

A: I did not have trouble sleeping the night before my first launch. I would always tell myself that there was a chance for a launch delay, and there was no use in getting myself tired. I would read a good book to get my mind on something else. I did not have to worry about oversleeping because someone was responsible for waking us up! Then, as I prepared on launch morning, I would stay focused on the schedule and the checklists. This is very important. An astronaut cannot let emotions interfere with mission execution. So the answer is to stay focused on the tasks of the moment, ensure all steps are completed properly, and work as a team. Of course, the excitement will build as the launch time draws near. A good way to control the excitement is to stay on the checklist!


Q: How did you feel about being the first female space shuttle commander?

A: It was a great honor to be the first woman space shuttle commander. It was also a great responsibility. I feel very fortunate to be chosen for this responsibility. I always took it very seriously and ensured I was always well prepared. I studied to ensure I knew everything in my technical area, I coordinated with my crew members to ensure all aspects of our mission were covered, and I communicated with members of the extended team. The commander is responsible for the safety and success of the mission, but the commander cannot do everything. Leadership and communication are very important.


From left, STS-114 astronauts Steve Robinson, Jim Kelly, Andy Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, Charlie Camarda, Eileen Collins, and Soichi Noguchi


Q: What was most memorable about visiting the International Space Station?

A: There are many memorable things about my visit to the space station. First, seeing the station crew right after opening the hatch. They were SO happy to see us! I was also interested in personally seeing the operational and science hardware that I had studied back on the Earth. Next, as commander it was very important to me that we achieved all our stated objectives. Therefore, operating our day-to-day assignments on the station, with efficiency and safety, is very memorable to me, as I look back on all our accomplishments.


Q: What feelings can you remember about looking down at the Earth from space?

A: The Earth is very beautiful from space. As I was floating over the Earth, I remember feeling like an angel, looking down at the bright blue oceans and white clouds. I remember thinking about the billions of individual people that are down there, each person with their own lives and set of concerns. I also thought about the history of events in certain areas I would see, such as the Mediterranean Sea, eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Such a wonderful human experience to look at the Earth and see we are truly living on the surface of a sphere that is rotating and revolving around the sun! After I returned to Earth, it changed my daily perspective on life.


Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-114, launched in 2005


Q: What did you miss most when you were in space?

A: My family and pizza!


Q: Did you face sexism or opposition as a woman test pilot and astronaut? How did you handle it?

A: No, I did not. The people I worked with were very professional. While life was not perfect in every way, I always felt part of a team. The only time I felt anything like that, was much earlier in my career when women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft. That changed in 1993, due to the success of the women pilots in 1974–1992.


Q: What advice do you have for kids who want to pursue careers as astronauts?

A: Study math and science. Later, when you are in college, [study] engineering. While in elementary school, basically, listen to your teachers, do your homework, and read a lot. Read about anything you are interested in. I read quite a bit about pilots and flying stories from various times in the 20th century. It really inspired me to become a pilot myself. Today, there are many books written by astronauts, so that is also a good source of inspiration.


Q: Do you believe we’ll someday find life on another planet?

A: I truly believe that our scientists will discover life on another planet. I think this will happen very soon. This life will be small microbial life. I am not so sure about advanced civilizations. That is much further in the future. 


Q: Do you think humans will live on another planet someday? If so, when?

A: Yes, I do believe humans will eventually live on another planet. Humans will be on Mars in the 2030s, as long as we can keep our development programs funded. In the 2020s, humans will return to the Moon to test the equipment we will use on Mars. This is a very exciting plan, one that I am following very closely. It is exciting to think that YOU, one of the people reading this right now, could be one of the astronauts who return to the Moon or walk on Mars someday!!!


Artist's concept of a small lunar outpost 

Q: What are some of the hobbies you enjoy?

A: I enjoy reading, running, working out at the gym, hiking, golf, movies, eating out with my family, and cleaning the house! (Note: I don’t really enjoy cleaning, but since I have to do it, I pretend it is a hobby, then it is easier to get started!)


Do astronauts ever get scared to go into space? Read Eileen’s answer in this Space Ace PDF.



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