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First Woman Commander Of Space Shuttles Will Lead The Discovery Crew

The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch between July 13 and the end of the month. This will be the first space shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster grounded the program nearly two and one half years ago. That shuttle disintegrated because a piece of foam insulation fell off the fuel tank at launch, smashing a hole in the spacecraft's wing that doomed it during re-entry. All seven astronauts were killed.

The Discovery crew will be led by Eileen Collins, who became the first woman commander of a space shuttle in 1999. VOA's Deborah Block has this profile of her as she prepares for her newest challenge.

As a young woman, Eileen Collins knew what she wanted to do in life. At age 19, she went to an airfield and told flight instructors that she wouldn't leave until they taught her to fly.

They agreed, and in time all her dreams came true. In 1991, she became an astronaut with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA.

Eileen talks about how she prepared, "The year that I started military pilot training for the Air Force was in 1978, and that was the same year that NASA took the first women into the shuttle program, and the six women that were in the first shuttle class became role models to me. And they were mission specialists, but I knew that I wanted to be a pilot, and I knew that this program existed, and that's when I decided that one day I was going to go on and fly as an astronaut."

Michel Tognini, a French astronaut who is head of the European Astronaut Center, has worked under her command. He says of Ms. Collins, "She filled all the conditions, and she was one of the first fighter pilots for the USA, and she was one of the first test pilots in the USA. She's been selected as an astronaut at NASA as a pilot. She flew twice on the right seat, so she had all the conditions to be on the left seat, and she did very well, and she is going to do it again."

Now, more than two years after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, Ms. Collins will lead Discovery's seven astronauts back to the International Space Station. The shuttle team will deliver supplies and scientific equipment that are crucial to continue the assembly of the largest man-made structure in space.

Ms. Collins is exciting about the future and says, "The space shuttle flights, and my flight is the next, are going to re-supply the space station. We're going to help build the space station and we're going to be doing science experiments, not just for our country, but other countries. We're going to be thinking about the next missions, maybe going back to the moon, or going to Mars someday, and eventually leaving the solar system and exploring other worlds. And to me this is so exciting."

Five men and one woman astronaut will join her on the Discovery shuttle. She says her heroes were the test pilots and astronauts who came before her. By making it to the top as the commander of space shuttles, she is sure to inspire the next generation of astronauts.