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First woman shuttle pilot, commander, ready to lead

Friday, February 14, 2003

SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Eileen Collins fell in love with space before she even started noticing boys. The affair began in fourth grade, with an article in Junior Scholastic Magazine about the Gemini astronauts.

It was a "pro" and "con" piece about whether the country should be spending money on the space program. Young Eileen didn't consider it a question for debate.

"I couldn't understand why anybody would say no," the 46-year-old Air Force colonel recalled this week. "Why would they not want to explore?"

Nearly four decades later, the shuttle Columbia disaster has renewed a debate that grew stronger after the 1986 Challenger explosion. After the loss now of 14 astronauts and two shuttles, the program has been suspended indefinitely, and some question whether the United States should continue risking human lives in space.

And, again, Collins doesn't see cause for question -- even though she is set to command the first mission following the Feb. 1 destruction of Columbia.

"We cannot wait to go fly," said Collins, whose July 1999 trip on Columbia made her the first woman to command a shuttle mission. "I'm a firm believer in getting people off the planet."

Collins was watching NASA TV with her 2-year-old son that Saturday morning when Mission Control lost contact with Columbia. A few hours later, she was at Johnson offering to help figure out what happened.

It didn't take her long to realize that her place was with her crew, and that her job was to prepare them for the upcoming flight on Atlantis. The mission was set for March, to do repairs on the international space station and swap out its crew.

But Columbia's demise has grounded her and the shuttles for no one knows how long.

The next day after Columbia disintegrated on its return to earth, Collins canceled all training for the next week, then for the following week. Two members of the crew were assigned to be with grieving relatives of the seven Columbia victims.

But there is a time for grief and a time to carry on.

"When the shuttle program is ready to fly again, and the investigation is complete, they do whatever they need to do, we're going to be at that one month from launch point," she says.

"I trust the folks that are working on the investigation, and I know by the time we fly, we're going to be safe. And whatever they find out happened, we will be able to minimize the risk of that happening again."

After Collins caught the space bug growing up in Elmira, N.Y., she found frustratingly little to feed her new appetite for space literature. So she satisfied that hunger by reading about World War II and Korean War military pilots.

By the time she was 20, she'd finally saved up $1,000 to start flying lessons. She cut her teeth in a Cessna 150.

She soloed for the first time in 1976. That's the same year the Air Force selected its first female pilots.

When she learned the Air Force was a possibility, she declared herself a math major and began laying the groundwork for a military career. In 1978, NASA selected the first six women astronauts -- they were in the first shuttle class.

While Collins was stationed at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, the women came there as part of their space training.

"And it was all over the papers: 'The astronauts are here,"' she recalled. "And I started thinking, 'You know? That's what I want to do."'

Collins worked her way up through the Air Force ranks, serving as a pilot and instructor. She graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School in 1990 and was selected by NASA for the space program.

In 1995, she became the first female shuttle pilot when she rendezvoused Discovery with the Russian space station Mir. She visited Mir again two years later as pilot of Atlantis. All told, she has logged 8.4 million miles in space.

If the investigation delays the next shuttle launch more than a few months, Collins will think about giving her crew some vacation.

"We work up to 55- to 60-hour weeks," she says. "And you just can't keep doing that for a year and expect to have the same level of energy when you go fly."

Collins' family still supports her desire to return to space. Her mother is already talking about getting a plane ticket for the launch.

She is less certain about how her 7-year-old daughter will feel.

Just last December, the astronaut decided the girl was finally old enough to learn about Challenger. Just as her airline pilot husband assured her it was OK for him to return to work after Sept. 11, Collins told her daughter the shuttle was safe.

Now, after Columbia, she knows she must have that talk again. She is not rushing it. "All I told her is that it's going to be a long time before Mom can fly again," she says. "I told her it was an accident, and we were going to find out what happened."

And she told her she was doing a job she believed in.

Collins envisions a day when humans will build space stations on the moon and Mars, when people take vacations on shuttles the way they now do on cruise ships. She knows she'll be too old to be a part of that, but she hopes the United States is in the lead when it happens.

"I feel like I'm a part of a very infant space program, because ... really, we're just beginning to do this," she says. "And it's going to be really exciting.

"I just hope I live long enough to see these things develop."


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