Eileen Collins, Space Pioneer, Recounts Her Historic Career
By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Space News
Eileen Collins, a former NASA astronaut, and the first woman Space Shuttle pilot was the featured lunchtime speaker at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) Thursday in Arlington, Virginia. The retired Air Force colonel took a few minutes before her presentation to talk with American Military University (AMU) about her storied career and the future of space travel. Here are selected excerpts from that interview.
AMU: I’m sure you get this question often, but I’d like to know what inspired you to make this arduous career journey at a time when few women were being trained as astronauts?
Collins: I was interested in space as far back as I can remember. In the fourth grade, I remember reading a Scholastic magazine; there was an article on the Gemini astronauts. That was the earliest memory I have of making the decision that I wanted to be an astronaut.
Also in the magazine was an article on the pros and cons of space flight: Should the United States be spending money on in-flight space programs? I couldn’t understand the cons [because] I was just a kid, but it was obvious to me that we should be having a space program. I don’t know why anyone would argue against that.
I realized, after reading about the astronauts, that I had to be a pilot if I was going to be an astronaut. But I wanted to be a pilot also, so I joined the Air Force.
AMU: Was it hard working your way through the space program?
Collins: Yes, it’s hard. They’re not going to come to you; you have to go to them. I came into the space program through the astronaut program. There are many other aspects of the space program, obviously. There are engineers, flight program directors, management.
And even outside of NASA, there are policy people, medical, legal. There’s so much to the space program. I think the people that are attracted to space are people that like to explore, to discover new things, and that’s the way I am. So that was part of the reason I was attracted to space exploration.
AMU: Part of the space program, of course, is the winnowing-out process. It’s rare for anyone to make it through the whole process to gain a place in a space capsule. With that in mind, we have an active STEM program, so I’m wondering if you have some suggestions for kids, college students, even active military, what they might be able to do to further the space program without actually becoming an astronaut.
Collins: For those in the military, they can join organizations like the National Space Society. There are societies like this around the world where you can actually be part of advocating for space exploration. That’s what I did as a young person. I joined the National Space Society, the Planetary Society.
There are quite a few, and I joined all of them. I was able to read their publications and you can go to their websites and educate yourself. There’s also an opportunity to talk to your congressman, your legislators, about why you think space is important. If they hear about it, they’ll be more focused on it.
The message i for the kids is different. It’s very, very important for children to study math. A lot of them say, “I can’t do math” or “Math is too hard.”
For the vast majority, it’s hard to learn math. You have to stick to it. For one of these days, the light’s going to come on, and you’re going to say, “Wow, I think I really understand this!”
AMU: My light bulb never came on.
Collins: Well, you didn’t have the right teachers. You should have had the right teachers. I tried to teach my son calculus when he was in the fourth grade. He couldn’t get it. His brain wasn’t there yet.
Kids mature at different rates so some aren’t ready yet. My son is 18; he’s already taken calculus and done well in it. So if you don’t get it in fourth grade or tenth grade, don’t give up. Math teaches you a way of thinking. It teaches you logic.
For children, it helps them to form their brains and become a logical person. I’m a big proponent of teaching math.
AMU: Can you give me one example of how math helped you as an astronaut and pilot of a crew?
Collins: Just being a pilot, you’re using math all the time. Whether it’s reading gauges or when you’re navigating, you’re using geometry. For example, let’s say you’re on runway two-seven and you’ve got a wind from three-zero-zero at 20 knots; I immediately know that that’s a 10-knot crosswind. If that wind’s coming at you at 40 knots, it’s a 20-knot crosswind and I’m out of limits and I can’t land. That’s trigonometry because the sine of 30 degrees is one-half.
You can do that in your head while you’re flying. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually very simple. That’s basic trigonometry, basic geometry. It’s a way of thinking.
AMU: Are you teaching now?
Collins: No, I’m not teaching anymore. I taught for three years at the Air Force Academy. I taught calculus and linear algebra. I also taught sixth grade when I was 18 and a student teacher.
AMU: And you taught them calculus?
Collins: No, because I didn’t know calculus then. I never took it in high school. They all do it now, but I didn’t take it until college.
AMU: What are you doing these days?
Collins: I’m a consultant. I’m busy and traveling a lot. I’m with the National Academy of Science Aerospace Science and Engineering Board. I’m also with the Astronaut Memorial Foundation. We’ve got a big vote coming up this summer on private space flight. I’m also on the National Space Council Advisory Group.
So I do a lot of things. Sometimes I consult for movies; that’s a lot of fun. But sometimes they’re canceled. “Oh, sorry, we’re not going to make this movie anymore.”
The jobs come to me. I don’t work for NASA anymore, but sometimes they’ll just forward me the [job request] emails. I’m 62 years old so I am not going to work full-time anymore.
AMU: John Glenn went back into space when he was 77.
Collins: John Glenn! Boy, wasn’t he wonderful! He was the most humble astronaut. He came to me [before a flight] and asked, “Here’s my camera. Can I fly this?”
I said, “They’re not going to let you fly with it.” He said, “Okay.” He didn’t even try to pull rank.
AMU: Great anecdote. Thanks so much, Eileen.
Then Eileen Collins was whisked out the door and down to the main ballroom for her address, which was greeted with a standing ovation. Whether talking first to one admirer and then to over one hundred, she charms her audience with her many accomplishments, anecdotes, and her candor.
As Eileen Collins speaks, you can still hear the teacher in her voice as she extols the vast possibilities of space exploration and how we must keep working to realize those possibilities. As she said of learning math, it just takes a good teacher. Eileen may not be teaching in a classroom anymore, but she certainly is an educator for life.