Eileen Collins doesn’t harp. She doesn’t fixate, but instead fixes. And though she may have high standards for herself and her work, she is not a believer in perfection. When asked about the influence of her parents on her career (her father, James, was a postal worker, strapped for cash, yet able to contribute to her Catholic school education), she’ll respond calmly with “they weren’t perfect.” But, she contends, “parents aren’t perfect.” Her feelings on NASA? “I don’t think NASA as an organization will ever be perfect.” But then again. “I want to say right up front that no organization is perfect.”
On flying the first flight mission into space since the Columbia disaster two years ago? “Everything is not going to be 100 percent perfect.” However. “If we waited for everything to be perfect we’d probably never get off the ground.” And that, in a nutshell, is the precept that Eileen Collins runs her life on. It is through this non-pursuit of perfection that America’s first female space commander has been able to make such extraordinary strides in her life. It seems as if it is a principle that her job depends on. Instead of seeking what is unattainable, Eileen is content with taking something in need of repair (like the International Space Station), or antiquated (like NASA’s policies on admitting female pilots), and just making it work.
It is in this vein that the darling of Elmira, New York — the economically lagging town of Collins’ youth — is also delicate with doling out criticism. She is cautious in addressing the machismo she must have encountered when entering the maledominated world of space flight.
“Sure, there were a couple of jokes,” she says with a shrug, refusing to elaborate further. And though she was raised in government housing, and her meals were ripped from her mother’s book of food stamps, Collins shrinks at the word “disadvantaged.”
“We were poor, but we weren’t disadvantaged.”
In Eileen’s upcoming mission, known technically as STS-114 and more colloquially as the “Return to Flight,” she will lead the Discovery shuttle to the International Space Station (ISS). The mission serves two primary purposes in the wake of the Columbia disaster — in which the space shuttle came apart on its return to earth, and seven astronauts died. The first is to service, resupply and repair the ISS. The second is to test the future of flight following the repair recommendations made following the crash of the Columbia shuttle. Since the last unsuccessful flight mission, Return to Flight promises to gamer record-breaking media attention.
Collins, who is now 48, has put off retirement for the opportunity to visit the ISS, a trip she will be making for the first time. “It’s hard to wait. I’m so excited,” she admitted.
One wonders if part of that excitement is a newfound anxiety in relation to the safety of space flight. After all, didn’t the Columbia explosion impact her in any way?
“It’s time to move on,” is Eileen’s reply, “I certainly consider the Columbia and the Challenger. The whole history of the space program is part of moving on and making life better for people on Earth.”
Though Eileen has been part of the task force that has spent the last two years implementing the recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to better the safety of space shuttles, and though she is confident in the measures she and NASA have taken to ensure this safety, there are still many whose knees would wobble at the thought of the risks still involved in space flight. However, Eileen is no knee-wobbler.
“To me, it is very important for humans to get off the planet,” she says. “Because I believe in this so much, I think that yes, there is risk in space travel, but I think that it’s safe enough that I’m willing to take the risk. I think it’s much, much safer than what our ancestors did in traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in an old ship. Frankly, I think they were crazy doing that, but they wanted to do that, and we need to carry on the human exploration of the universe that we live in.”
Eileen remembers her childhood fascination with astronauts. She admits wondering about the astronauts’ families, about the selection process and all other facets involving such a life. However, it wasn’t until high school that Eileen realized a dire detail she had previously missed,
“I started wondering, hey, what’s going on here? Why can’t women do this?”
The exploration advocate began her aviation career at 20, when she took flying lessons from money she’d saved working a part-time job. She then spent 12 years in the air force, and from there became NASA’s first female pilot.
In rural Elmira, where role models are few and far between, a new generation of young girls aspires to follow in Eileen’s footsteps.
At the Eileen Collins summer camp, sponsored each year by the National Soaring Museum, girls and boys alike, age 9-14, learn about aviation and participate in actual flight, including a hot air balloon ride. For the female participants of the camp, Eileen is a readily available role model.
“We’re a small town,” says Victoria Wilcox, 14, who spent two summers at the camp and has since won a scholarship through the Women Soaring Pilot Association, “and when someone makes it big we really embrace it.” When asked if she would be among the crowds expected to form outside the museum and Coming Community College — Collins’ alma matter — Victoria responded that she would probably just check it out on MTV.
Susan Goldman, 15, another graduate of the camp and one of three girls in the 30-member Harris Hill Gliders Club, admitted that Eileen has had a strong influence on her aviation interests.
“I have to say she’s really inspired me,” she said. “It’s cool that she’s a girl and doing [aviation] and gone so far.”
In spite of her busy schedule, Eileen manages to make an annual pilgrimage to the town of her birth, and talk, sometimes one-on-one, with her hometown fanbase.
“She’s a very personable lady,” explains Lindsay Thompson, 15, a summer camp participant who met Eileen two years ago, and who has a framed picture of their meeting in her room. Eileen advised Lindsay to set high goals for her career and in her life.
At home, however, Eileen has the difficult task of convincing her biggest fans, her 4-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, that mommy’s going to be okay.
“My youngest is too young to really talk about risk — he knows where mommy sits and that’s about the extent of his understanding at this point. But he’s pretty excited about the Space Shuttle. He can recognize the Space Shuttle from a disrance and talk about it at his level.”
Eileen’s daughter, Bridget Marie, is another story, however. During Christmas three years ago, Eileen first broached the subject of the Challenger accident with Bridget Marie. Five weeks later, the Columbia accident occurred, and Eileen had a lot of reassuring to do, and still does.
“Immediately after the accident, I told her, `Mommy’s not going to fly for a long time so I don’t want you to worry. We have lots of time to talk about this, and we’ve got lots of time to figure out what happened and to get things straightened out.’ Occasionally I’ll bring up our mission and what we’re doing, but I have made it a mission of mine to help her learn more about what we’re doing in space, because I find that a person will have less fear if they understand what’s going on.” Since riding the Shuttle simulator, and being filled in, minute-by-minute, to events concerning the Discovery, Bridget Marie has been put somewhat at ease.
In the days leading up to the launch (as of press time, it has been delayed until mid-July), Collins’ family were pretty much her only extra-curricular activities. She spent her time pretty much in seclusion at the Kennedy Space Station in Florida, and is in fact so busy that NASA has ceased to grant interviews until her return. However, back in Elmira, NY, a genuine buzz can be heard around Harris Hill, where in 1930 the country held its first national soaring competitions and a young Eileen, watching lightweight planes soar over her head, first dared to dream. ♦