Six years ago, Eileen Collins became the first woman ever assigned to be commander of the U.S. Space Shuttle. That's a role she will reprise when Discovery launches into orbit as the first shuttle mission since the fatal Columbia disaster more than 2 years ago (February 1, 2003).
Four years before Eileen Collins actually commanded a shuttle flight, she was the first woman to pilot the earth orbiter. The 48-year-old astronaut says flying was something she wanted to do since she was 8 or 9 years old.
"I started reading about flying as a young girl," she says. "The space program was really just in its infancy back then, and I was very interested in that. I got most of my information through reading."
But she says, watching glider pilots soaring through the skies of her hometown also inspired her. "I never had the opportunity to fly gliders myself," Ms. Collins says, "but we have a soaring field in Elmira, New York, that really inspired me when I was a young child that someday I would have an opportunity to do that."
The 2nd of 4 children, Eileen Collins grew up in a housing project for low- income families in Elmira, New York. Her father, a surveyor and a postal worker, divorced her mother when the future astronaut was 9.
Despite the divorce, both parents were always supportive of her dreams. "My parents always let me know they loved me and whatever I wanted to do they would support me," she recalls. "It gave me the confidence to go on and choose a rather unusual career."
Initially, Ms. Collin's career choice was not that unusual. She wanted to teach math, a subject she enjoyed, even though it didn't always come easily. "I think math is hard for everybody," she says. "But it's the kind of thing that if you work at it long enough, you are going to get it. And once you get it, you find that you have a love for it."
Studying math has helped her be a better pilot, Eileen Collins says. It was while finishing her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University that the future astronaut had her first opportunity to fly. As a student in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps - or ROTC - Eileen Collins was among the first to sign up when the Air Force decided to train women as pilots.
She did eventually teach math - at the Air Force Academy. And she says her superiors in the Air Force encouraged her as she expanded her career goals and began to reach for the stars.
"I really lived in the Air Force. It was my life for the longest time," she says. "My leaders, my supervisors or managers would ask me, 'What do you want to do in your next job?' And I'd say, 'Well, I think I'd like to be a test pilot.' And they'd say, 'Yeah, you can do that. Here's what you ought to do.'"
Later when she told her supervisors she wanted to apply to the astronaut program. They told her "You would make a good astronaut. Let's get your career going in that direction.'"
As commander for the Columbia flight in July, 1999, Eileen Collins experienced 2 system failures. Two of the main engine computers short-circuited during take-off and a leak of liquid hydrogen threatened a fuel shortage.
Less than 4 years later, the same shuttle exploded minutes before landing, killing the entire crew.
Although a number of improvements have been made in the shuttle Discovery since the Columbia disaster, Eileen Collins recognizes space flight will never be without risk, but she believes the mission is worth that risk.
"People have given their lives throughout history in the name of making the Earth a better place to live for everybody," she says. "I certainly consider the Columbia and the Challenger and the whole history of the space program as part of moving on and making life better for people on Earth."
With that in mind, Eileen Collins looks forward to helping put America's space program - and her career as an astronaut -- back in orbit. The launch of Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled for July 13th.