Eileen Collins Biography

AP/Wide world Photos.
Eileen Collins
AP/Wide world Photos.

November 19, 1956 • Elmira, New York>


Throughout her career as an astronaut, Eileen Collins achieved several firsts in the history of space travel. In 1995, when she took the helm of the Discovery, she became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. A space shuttle is a manned spacecraft used to transport crews and materials into orbit on short missions that have a particular purpose. For example, part of the 1995 Discovery mission was to retrieve an astronomy satellite (an instrument that orbits in space and sends clear astral images back to Earth for observation). Collins was the first woman to command a space shuttle in 1999; and in July 2005 she commanded the much-anticipated launch of the first space shuttle since the disastrous Columbia voyage in 2003, during which all seven astronauts were killed on board. Collins's 2005 mission was considered key to the future of manned space flight, since the focus was to test out new safety measures and repair techniques. When the shuttle returned to Earth on August 10, 2005, with the seven-person crew safe and sound, watchers the world over breathed a sigh of relief.

Born to soar

Eileen Marie Collins was born on November 19, 1956, in Elmira, New York, an appropriate birthplace for a would-be pilot since the city is known as the "soaring capital" of the United States. It is home to the Harris Hill Soaring Center, where pilots congregate to fly gliders (motorless airplanes). In fact, some of Collins's earliest and fondest memories are of visiting Harris Hill and watching the sleek planes soar off the ridges of the city. Another favorite memory is going to the local airport with her parents and watching planes take off while sitting on the hood of their car. Such family moments, however, were short-lived. When Collins was nine years old, her mother, Rose, and father, James, separated. "It hit me like a ton of bricks," she commented to Al Weisel of Us magazine.

It was an emotionally difficult time in Collins's life, made only worse by economic hardship. Her father lost his job at the post office, and her mother was looking for work. For a time Collins, her mother, and three siblings lived in low-income housing and relied on food stamps (government-funded coupons used to redeem groceries). James eventually became a surveyor and Rose took a job at a correctional facility, or prison, which made their financial situation better—but there was still little room for luxuries. The thing that Collins wanted most was flying lessons. During high school she worked nights at a pizza parlor to save up the $1,000 needed for private lessons. At age nineteen she stepped on her first plane and knew immediately that she wanted to be a professional pilot.

At the same time, Collins spent a good deal of time studying about military flying. "I had been reading about pilots, and it fascinated me," she explained to Weisel. "The first time

"My daughter just thinks that all moms fly the space shuttle."

women were accepted as pilots in the military was in 1974, just as I was reading about it. The timing was perfect." After high school Collins enrolled at Corning Community College in New York, where she received an associates degree in mathematics in 1974. She then took her first step toward the military by joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). The ROTC is a college-based program that prepares individuals for advanced military careers. Thanks to an ROTC scholarship, Collins attended Syracuse University in New York and graduated in 1978 with bachelor's degrees in mathematics and economics.

A string of military firsts

Although the U.S. Navy accepted women as pilots in 1974, the U.S. Air Force did not until 1976. In 1978, when Collins set her sights on attending Undergraduate Pilot Training school at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, she was among the first group of 120 females to apply. She was one of only four women chosen; the rest of her classmates (320 total) were men. After a year of training, the twenty-three-old Collins became the U.S. Air Force's first female flight instructor. From 1979 until 1990 Collins taught flying at bases in Oklahoma, California, and Colorado. She also served as an assistant professor of mathematics at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. In addition to teaching, Collins continued her own studies by attending classes at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio, and earning a master of science degree in operations research from California's Stanford University in 1986, and a master of arts degree in space systems management from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri.

By 1989, at the age of thirty-two, Collins was, according to Guy Gugliotta of the Seattle Times, "as hot a property as the Air Force had." Having logged in over fifteen hundred hours of flight time and secured several advanced degrees, Collins became the second woman ever to be accepted to the prestigious Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. While there she held her own in the male-dominated ranks of the military and cemented a reputation for being a cool, level-headed pilot.

After graduating in 1990, Collins was chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to become an astronaut. NASA was formed in 1958 and is the government agency responsible for monitoring the U.S. space program.

Citizens in Space

In the early 2000s, the future of the NASA space program remained in question, but the outlook for commercial space tourism was in full swing. After space exploration became a reality in the early 1960s, many predicted that in the near future the average citizen would be able to take trips to space. Visionaries dreamed of space vacations, hotels on other planets, and families taking up residence on the moon.

In 1990, the first private citizen, Japanese reporter Toyohiro Akiyama (1942–), was allowed to accompany a Russian crew on a week-long mission to the Mir space station. The fee was $28 million. Ten years later, in 2000, administrators of the Mir space station again offered would-be tourists the opportunity to travel to space. The reason was to offset the high cost of maintaining the station. On April 28, 2001, U.S. businessman Dennis Tito (1940–) paid a whopping $20 million for a seven-day mission to visit the International Space Station. South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth (1973–) became the third space tourist on April 25, 2002, traveling aboard the Russian Soyuz TM-34 mission for ten days. He, too, paid $20 million for the opportunity and spent a year prior to the launch undergoing extensive training.

After the 2003 Columbia mission disaster, which resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts, commercial spaceflight was temporarily halted. Privately funded companies, however, continued to reach for the stars. The most well known was the Scaled Composites aviation company headed by U.S. aircraft designer Burt Rutan (1943–). Rutan's crew of engineers succeeded in building an experimental aircraft called SpaceShipOne, capable of suborbital flight. In a suborbital flight a craft reaches just to the edge of space, and requires less velocity (speed and power) than a craft going into actual orbit.

On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne performed its first successful manned spaceflight; it also became the first privately funded human spaceflight. On October 4 of that same year SpaceShipOne's creators took home the coveted Ansari X Prize, a competition funded by the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit organization that encourages private space exploration. Several other private companies had been vying for the $10 million prize for several years, but Rutan was the first to fully satisfy the competition criteria. The rules specified that the winner would be the first privately funded, piloted spacecraft to reach an altitude of at least 62.14 miles (the boundary of space). The launch had to be successfully performed twice in two weeks.

Based on SpaceShipOne's success Rutan predicted that commercial space travel for the average citizen was inevitable. Passengers onboard a suborbital flight would be taken on a short trip, but they would fully experience the weightlessness of space and a spectacular view of Earth. The cost would also be relatively less expensive than previous commercial flights, expecting to run approximately $100,000. As Rutan commented to Brad Stone of Newsweek, "After this flight, I don't think it will be hard to convince anyone that space tourism is within the grasp of normal people."

In 2005 there were approximately 439 astronauts worldwide. Astronauts usually have military backgrounds and are experienced test pilots. Because of the rigorous physical, mental, and scientific demands, they are among an elite group.

Enters the space race

Collins's basic astronaut training included several courses in land and water survival, parachute training, and field trips to various NASA centers and geological sites. There were also classes in such things as the history of the space program, weather, medicine, and mechanics. Perhaps the most difficult part of training was the simulator, which puts pilots through practice launches. During eight-minute sessions, instructors bombard trainees with a series of mechanical malfunctions that might take place during a mission. The pilot may have mere seconds to make a life-or-death decision.

Collins's initial assignments were to provide engineering support for unmanned orbiting systems. Over the next five years she also served as a spacecraft communicator, and then as the Astronaut Office Spacecraft Systems Branch Chief, Chief Information Officer, Shuttle Branch Chief, and Astronaut Safety Branch Chief. All of this experience prepared Collins for her first mission as a space shuttle pilot in 1995. The mission was the first leg of a new joint space program between Russia and the United States and involved a rendezvous between the U.S. shuttle Discovery and the Russian Mir space station. The Mir space station was the first long-standing orbiting research station in space; it existed until 2001. Collins remembered the feeling of her first flight in an interview with Al Weisel in 1999: "The launch sounds like you're standing in a room that's on fire. The engines turn off at eight and a half minutes, and you're immediately in zero gravity. I pulled out my pen and it floated. I thought, I'm here—I'm in space."

Collins was the first woman to pilot a shuttle, and upon her return she was awarded the Harmon Trophy, which each year honors the highest achievement in space flight. In 1997 Collins piloted her second Discovery-Mir mission, and in 1999 she reached another space history milestone by becoming the first woman to command a space shuttle. The focus of the five-person Columbia crew was to launch the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the largest X-ray telescope ever established in space. The mission, however, did not begin smoothly. During the launch, faulty wiring blew out two of the shuttle's three main engines. Although the backup engine kicked in, another problem arose when a fuel line began to leak. Throughout the ordeal Commander Collins remained calm and collected, and she successfully guided the craft through launch, its five-day mission, and a safe landing. According to Jeremy Manier of the Chicago Tribune, her cool-headed response to the perilous situation "helped seal the admiration of her colleagues."

Most important mission

Throughout her career Collins lived in the spotlight because of her many accomplishments. In 2005 that spotlight became very bright as her next, and perhaps most important command mission, approached. The purpose of the fourteen-day Discovery mission was to improve safety features for future shuttle missions, a particularly vital task since the credibility of the U.S. space program had plummeted during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The primary reason was that federal budget cuts forced NASA administrators to look for ways to reduce costs. In 1999, after two unmanned orbiters (Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander) disinte-grated, the press began to severely criticize the effects of the cuts.

The most serious blow to the space program came on February 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. The entire seven-person crew died in the explosion. The shuttle program was halted for the next two years while researchers investigated the cause. Ultimately it was discovered that falling foam debris from the fuel tank struck the Columbia during launch, causing unseen damage that made it fall apart during reentry. One of the Discovery crew's tasks during its 2005 mission was to do the first-ever complete nose-over-tail spin, which would allow the underside of the shuttle to be photographed and inspected for problems. Any problems detected could then be fixed to assure a safe reentry.

The Discovery crew, including Stephen Robinson, left, Eileen Collins, center, and James Kelly, spent much of their fourteen days in space docked and working at the International Space Station. AP/ Wide World Photos.
The Discovery crew, including Stephen Robinson, left, Eileen Collins, center, and James Kelly, spent much of their fourteen days in space docked and working at the International Space Station.
AP/ Wide World Photos.

Prior to the July 26, 2005, launch of the Discovery , reporters hounded Collins, asking her if she feared for her safety or if she felt pressured that the future of manned spaceflight depended on her success. Collins responded with her usual calm reserve. She told Marcia Dunn of the Los Angeles Times, "We are staying focused on the mission and we know we are good hands with the people on the ground."

During their fourteen days in space, the majority of the crew's time was spent docked at the International Space Station (ISS), which is an orbiting station sponsored by six international agencies from the United States, Japan, Russia, Canada, Brazil, and members of the European Space Agency. They delivered supplies to the ISS and made routine inspections and maintenance. In addition, Collins and crew carefully scrutinized their shuttle to ensure that no damage would prevent them from making a safe return.

On August 10, after a brief weather delay, the Discovery and its crew landed unharmed at Edwards Air Force Base. NASA officials gave cheers of joy, and at a CNN news conference, program manager Bill Parson commented, "It's a good day to be us." During that same conference, one senior official acknowledged Collins for the success: "There isn't any of this that is easy . . . but Eileen made it look like a cake walk."

Celebrity and mom

Although the Discovery mission was a success, it still suffered from falling foam during its launch. As a result NASA officials suspended future shuttle flights until engineers fully fixed the problem. Collins had no doubt, however, that the space program was back on track and looked forward to the future of manned trips to Mars and the moon. She explained to Cathy Booth Thomas of Time magazine, "We've got to constantly remind the generation that follows about the lessons we've learned."

Whether Collins would be back in space remained to be seen, although her public image as a celebrity was secured. In her hometown of Elmira she had achieved almost mythic status, and an Eileen Collins Observatory was established at nearby Corning Community College. Collins has also been honored with numerous awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, and NASA Space Flight Medals. In addition, after her first flight in 1995 she joined the ranks of America's top female achievers when she was added to the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Despite her national celebrity, Collins remained very private about her personal life and kept her family out of the limelight. She is married to fellow pilot Pat Youngs, whom she met in the 1980s when they were both flight instructors in California. They have two young children, Bridget and Luke. Bridget was nine years old at the time of the 2005 Discovery mission, and prior to the flight Collins felt it was necessary to help her daughter understand how spaceflight works. The two visited the shuttle flight simulator together and discussed all the safety measures that were in place. During the mission, Collins e-mailed her children every day.

In her spare time, Commander Collins has a difficult time unwinding and separating work from leisure. For fun she reads thick technical manuals and revisits feedback from flight training, all so that she can learn more about spaceflight. Her colleagues, however, wonder if there is anything left for her to learn. But, as the driven pilot revealed to Jeremy Manier, "I gotta tell you, I came back from my last flight and I tried to read a novel, and it was boring. I couldn't get into it. My life was like, way above anything I could read in a book."

For More Information


Gugliotta, Guy. "Rocket Woman: A Commander's Rise in the Ranks." Seattle Times (July 6, 2005): p. A3.

Manier, Jeremy. "Shuttle Leader: Low-Key, Persistent, Unflappable." Chicago Tribune (July 11, 2005).

Podesta, Jane Sims, Anne-Marie O'Neill, and Laurel Calkins. "Command Performance: Astronaut Eileen Collins." People (May 11, 1998): p. 225.

Stone, Brad. "Space Travel: Great Space Coaster?" Newsweek (June 28, 2004): p. 12.

Thomas, Cathy Booth. "Mom Will Be Away for a While." Time (April 18, 2005): p. 20.

Web Sites

"Astronaut Bio: Eileen Collins." NASA Web site. http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/collins.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Dunn, Marcia. "7 Astronauts Marvel at Reception at Home." Los Angeles Times (August 10, 2005). http://www.latimes.com/news/science/wire/sns-ap-back-from-space,1,1431844.story?coll=sns-ap-science-headlines…ctrack=1…cset=true (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Patterson, Tom. "'Discovery Is Home': Shuttle Completes First Mission Since Loss of Columbia." CNN.com : Science … Space (August 10, 2005). http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/space/08/09/space.shuttle/index.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Patterson, Tom. "NASA Eyes Shuttle's Future." CNN.com : Science … Space (August 10, 2005). http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/space/08/09/shuttle.future/index.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Weisel, Al. "Miss Universe: Astronaut Eileen Collins." Us Weekly (April 1999). http://home.nyc.rr.com/alweisel/useileencollins.htm (accessed on August 23, 2005).

User Contributions:

I am a teacher at Challenger Middle School in the Sunnyside School district. I was showing my 6th grade students a little bit about your biography. I went to school with you at Corning Community College and was in one of the introductory classes with you back in 1974. I would very much like to be in touch with you again, and begin a communication between you, NASA and Challenger Middle School. We also have the Pima Air and Space Museum here in Tucson, where I have taken 6th grade students to pretend to be in Mission control and to do experiments on the Space Shuttle. Would it be possible to make an on-going connection? We are presently studying about women in math and science and how there are fewer women than men. We have been discussing why that is, and how we can encourage more girls to go into the fields of math and science.

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