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Photo provided via Eileen Collins.

First female space commander Eileen Collins to speak in Frontiers in Science series

Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a space shuttle, is the keynote speaker of the first event of Ohio University’s Frontiers in Science 2021 lecture series. Collins is visiting OU via Microsoft Teams on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m. to discuss the key qualities needed to to be an efficient, successful leader.

Students like Emily Harasin, a sophomore studying HTC Chemistry, are eager to visit the lecture and hear Collins’ inspirational life story of joining one of the first groups of female pilots in the Air Force and then eventually rising to the top.

“Collins is a powerful role model to female-identifying people everywhere,” Harasin said in a message. “From being in the Air Force to becoming an astronaut, she shows that women are just as capable, though these fields are typically perceived as male-dominated industries. Personally, I am excited to listen to her speech at OU because I am interested in astrophysics and space exploration.”

Collins is an idol to many because throughout her life she pushed past boundaries and societal norms of what was expected and allowed of women, specifically in aeronautics and space. Women had been pilots before Collins became one, but none were recognized as part of the Air Force until test pilot training programs began for women in 1978.

A large group of these female pilots were the Women Airforce Service Pilots, also known as the WASPs. Although they ferried planes for the Air Force during World War II, WASPs were never considered part of the military and didn’t earn veteran benefits until the late 1970s, when some women had already passed away. Collins is going to discuss these women, along with others, in her lecture about female leadership in space.

Collins’ interest in spaceflight began at a young age, and she remembers reading about astronauts in her local library. She grew up in Elmira, New York, and her parents used to take her to watch glider planes fly near her house.

“I was in fourth grade, and I was reading an article in Junior Scholastic Magazine about the Gemini astronauts,” Collins said. “And that’s my first memory of really learning about astronauts and deciding that I wanted to be one of them… I wanted to be a lady astronaut, even though they were all men in those days.”

After graduating from Syracuse University through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, Collins followed her dream of the Air Force just in time to join their test pilot training program. Along with three other women, she trained to be a pilot and was monitored closely to see if she could handle it.

“I couldn’t really call in sick,” Collins admitted. “Well, I could, but I felt like every time I called in sick and didn’t go in to fly that day, it would be a strike against the women in the future… so, the entire pilot training, I only called in sick one day.”

Being one of only four female pilots on a base of 500 was certainly different, but Collins said that it was an amazing year and experience overall. Afterward, she was even asked to stay on the team as an instructor, and she now feels like being in the Air Force is like being part of a big family.

“We support each other,” Collins said. “Maybe I felt a little bit awkward at first, just kind of standing out and being a woman in a man’s world. But I think that wore off pretty fast, and I felt very accepted.”

Collins was later hired as an astronaut with NASA and flew her first two missions in 1995 and 1997 as a mission specialist, the same title held by pilots like Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and the approximately fifteen other women who had flown before her. She later flew as commander of two flights, one in 1999 and one in 2005, and her flight in 1999 was the first time that an American woman was commander of a space shuttle.

Being in space certainly has a learning curve, and astronauts have to grow accustomed to new habit patterns like using strings to tether objects down or having velcro on utensils. 

The first couple days are the most difficult to adapt because the human body has a fluid shift where, according to Collins, “your face gets fat, your legs get skinny, your hair floats and… your head just feels full.” Looking back at the blue and white of the earth from the windows of the space shuttle is the most beautiful thing about the job for Collins. 

“The earth is a water planet, and it really drives that point home,” Collins said. “Sometimes you look out you see land, and desert, or maybe a dull kind of dark green, which could be forests or jungles. At night, when you look out the window, you’re almost always going to see thunderstorms, because around the equator there are always thunderstorms going off somewhere, and you’ll see them flashing.”

Collins described seeing the earth from space as little tiny pinpoints of people living on the surface of a ball. Seeing everything from that perspective might make one feel insignificant, but Collins takes it as a challenge, seeing as humans only have earth to inhabit. 

“The other thing is, you look the other way and it’s all dark,” Collins said. “We have not found anything like the earth in our solar system yet, or in our galaxy… so we need to take care of the earth. Those are things you think about maybe not while you’re up there because you’re so busy, but you definitely think about it when you come back.”

Collins emphasized that a lot of the work being done in space today is made up of doctors and researchers trying to understand how the human body adapts to space in a long term sense. Programs such as SpaceX are pioneering commercial spaceflight, and it is essential to learn the overall health impacts of being in space.

As a pilot on her first two flights, Collins did work such as deploying a satellite, performing experiments, participating in spacewalks and helping build the International Space Station with Russian astronauts. Once she became commander, Collins deployed a large telescope called the Chandra X-ray Observatory on her third flight and helped work on the International Space Station on her fourth. 

Collins’ lecture on leadership will discuss communicating, knowing your job and having integrity – the traditional leadership qualities that she values most. Then, she is going to focus on the history of women in space and cover the endless future possibilities for students of any major to work with space programs. Collins is also going to show an eight-minute home video of her last mission in space and have a 30-minute Q&A.

“The thing I loved about working at Nasa was that nobody really cared if you were a woman; nobody treated you differently,” Collins said. “The important thing was, what are you going to do for this mission that’s going to make it successful? It was just the culture, and I really enjoyed working in that culture. I think a lot of it is because NASA is a young organization… and it was just easier for the women to integrate into that culture.”


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