On July 23, 1999, Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. Under Collins’ command, the Space Shuttle Columbia blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. and deployed the $1.5 billion Chandra X-ray telescope into orbit.
Born on November 19, 1965, Collins read and dreamed about becoming a pilot as a young girl. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1978, she was one of the first women to go directly from college into the Air Force training program. In fact, her class was one of the first at Oklahoma’s Vance Air Force Base to include women. She completed the course in 1979 and stayed on the base for three more years as an instructor.
In 1983, Collins transferred to Travis Air Force Base in California, where she flew cargo plans as a part of military and humanitarian mission around the globe. While in California, she earned an M.S. degree in operations research from Stanford University in 1986 and an M.A. in space systems management from Webster University in 1989. In 1990, Collins became the second woman to graduate as a test pilot. Recognizing her stellar experience as a pilot and impressive education background, NASA selected her for their astronaut training program in 1990.
After graduating from the program in 1991, Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle – the 1995 Discovery mission. Aside from making women’s space history, the Discovery mission also made world history as the first flight of the new joint Russian-American space program. Two year later, she piloted the space shuttle Atlantis to dock with MIR.
Collins had already logged an impressive 419 hours in outer space when she made history (again) as the first woman to command an American space shuttle. As the commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia, she oversaw the successful deployment of the Chandra X-Ray telescope.
Also a mother and wife, Collins explained that she did not want her life as an astronaut to change her life back on planet earth. However, the experience still altered her perspective. Looking back at the blue planet from outer space, she realized how much we need to take care of earth. “Space flight is the future. I would like to see more civilians go into space,” she said on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Collins retired from NASA in 2006 and continues to advocate for the expansion of the American space program. She recently spoke at a June 2018 meeting held by President Trump, where he announced his plans for a Space Force within the U.S. Armed Forces.