On March 30 astronaut Eileen Collins, the first of two women Navy test pilots, the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, and the first woman to command a mission, was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame, at the Metropolitan Club in New York City. Folk legend Judy Collins sang “Beyond the Sky,” the song that NASA had commissioned her to write for Eileen when she commanded the “Return to Flight” mission two years after the Columbia disaster in 2005. Eileen began her remarks, an edited version of which follows, by thanking Judy saying, “I‘ve always wanted to be a singer, but I could not sing so – maybe in another life – I decided to go fly.” She signs all of her photographs with “Reach for the Stars,” her own personal motto.
Colonel Collins went on to thank President Clinton. “He was the one who in 1993 signed the cooperative agreement with the Russians, which got the U.S. and Russia working together in the space program… That was a little bit controversial… But it did work out and we are good friends with the Russians now – at the engineers’ level – the flight controllers, the managers, the cosmonauts, the astronauts… It’s been very successful. And now we are in the International Space Station.
“But I do want to say a few things about my Irish heritage and then a few things about the space program.
“I am very, very proud of my Irish heritage and I am very lucky to be part of Irish culture and I consider us one big Irish family.
“My ancestors came to America in the mid-1800s. The Collins family settled in Richboro, Pennsylvania. They were farmers. And on my mother’s side, the O’ Haras, they were mostly railroad people.
“My grandfather, Jim O’ Hara, was a manager at the Lackawanna station in Elmira, New York, so I grew up in Elmira, New York. And why does that matter? Well, Elmira is nearby Harris Hill, known as the ‘soaring capital’ of America.
“When I was a child, my dad would take us to the airport or the gliderport. We‘d sit on the hood of the car and we would watch these gliders take off. And even at summer camp and all through the summer I watched these gliders fly overhead and I thought, ‘I’d really like to do that someday.’
“I remember my mother taking us to the library. That is how she’d get rid of us, you know – four kids, dumped them off at the library and she’d go do her shopping. But at the library, I found the section on flying and I found everything I could find on flight – the theory of flight, the history of flight, women in aviation, military pilots… They all inspired me to eventually join the military. And by chance, my timing worked out. So the year that I graduated from Syracuse University, which was 1978, was the first year that the Air Force took women into pilot training.
“I reported to Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, and I was a member of the first class to take women for pilot training at that base. And there were only four of us women – and there were 280 male pilots and over 100 instructors. So everybody knew who we were and they knew what kind of grades we were getting and what we were doing…
“The first time I flew with Fort Worth Center I was in formation. We fly ‘lead’ and a wingman – both the lead and the wing talk on the radio. So when the Fort Worth Center flight controller or air traffic controller, heard my voice, he called my lead and said, ‘Vance 21 flight. Is your wingman a wingwoman? Or is his seatbelt just too tight?’
“So I learned to have a sense of humor and I never got upset about those things. I flew in the Air Force for 12 years. I absolutely loved the years that I did that. I met my husband Pat who is here with us today. He has just been great and very supportive throughout my career.
“I started at NASA in 1990 – the Airforce assigned me to NASA, and I felt like I was leaving the best job in the world for the future best job in the world because all I wanted to do when I was young was go further and faster and higher.
“So I just want to say a few things about what it is like to be in space because my Pat always tells me, ‘Just tell them what it is like to be in the space and how much fun it is up there…’
“So being in space you are floating in zero G. It is like learning how to roller skate for the first time but it is a wonderful, effortless feeling. Looking back at the Earth from space, you can put your face right up against the window and stretch out your arms and you feel like you are a Greek God flying over the planet, very cool.
“Think about the fact that we live on a ball that is spinning. And the space station – by the way, and the space shuttle is only 200 miles above the surface. It is not that far. If you drove straight there, it would take maybe three hours.
“So the breathable air goes up two to three miles, an airplane flies six to seven miles… The Earth’s atmosphere is like the skin on an apple– that is how thin it is when you look back.
“The other thing about being in space is the orbit.
“We go around the Earth once every 90 minutes, so that converts to… If you project it on the surface,18,500 miles/hour…
“We have the low Earth orbit. So if this is the Earth, we are going around like this – every 90 minutes. We go in and out of the shuttle – so the sun is shining on the Earth…. Well, you get the sunset and then 45 minutes later sunrise; 45 minutes later sunset, 45 minutes later sunrise…So you don’t have normal nighttime up there like here on Earth when you sleep when it is dark usually. You get constant sun coming in and out of the windows every 45 minutes. It kind of messes with your circadian rhythm…
“Now, we are in lower Earth orbit. If you could fly straight there, you might get there in three hours but if you are going to go to the Moon, it takes three days. If you are going to go to Mars, it takes six months if the planets are on the same side of the Sun. If planets are on the different sides of the Sun, it takes two years. But we want to go to Mars someday.
“So why are we flying in space? What does that do for us?”
“Well, if you look at the history of the space program, spaceflight leads to invention, it leads to discoveries… It is exploration and it is adventure. We are adventuring into a new world.
“If we think about the Irish people and even my ancestors who crossed the ocean so long ago coming to a new world… And you think how much courage that took… It took courage for them to leave their homes and their families, first of all. It took courage to get in a boat and go across an ocean. And it took courage to set up a new home in a place where you’re maybe not even going to be accepted – where you’re going.
“So I believe that the Irish people, particularly Irish Americans, are people of adventure. And I believe that our Irish ancestors have something in common with the space program and that’s the sense of adventure. So there is a need to explore, a need to learn new things, a need to do new things… And this is the hope of our space program and it is the premise of our space program.
“So someday, people will leave planet Earth to explore new worlds… It will be under different circumstances, obviously, than the ocean travelers but there will be many similarities because there are new worlds to discover, new technologies, new materials and maybe even new life.
“Most of you know about the Kepler Satellite. So the Kepler Satellite was launched by NASA several years ago. The only purpose is to discover Earth-like planets in other parts of our galaxy. So today Kepler Satellite has identified 4,600 candidate planets, and of those, 1,040 are confirmed to be planets like Earth in the habitable zone of their stars.
“So I remember as a kid they told me there are nine planets, and now we teach our kids that there are over 1,000 and the number changes all the time – it keeps going up.
“Kepler has only looked at the tiny bit of the sky in the galaxy. So if you extrapolate what we have found to the entire galaxy, they are predicting there are over 11 billion Earth-like planets. That doesn’t even include the large ones!
“Someday, I believe, people will figure out a way to travel to these places and it won’t be in my lifetime. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I was born too soon.
“But finally, I‘d just like to say it is really an honor to be here.
“My congratulations go to the other honorees. It is wonderful to meet you all and to be here with you. I want to thank Patricia again and all those who went through a lot of hard work to put this together…
“And again, I am very proud to be Irish. God bless you all!” ♦