Shuttle Commander Always In Right Space at Right Time

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005

HOUSTON -- Astronaut Eileen Collins stands 5-foot-6, wears her auburn hair short, and has a neat, economical way about her that inspires confidence and encourages confidences. At test pilot school they called her "Mom," because the boys liked her.

The other part turns out to be harder to get at. The part about how a blue-collar kid from public housing in Elmira, N.Y., climbed to the top of one of the world's most exclusive professions so smoothly and inevitably that it seemed almost a birthright.

But the other part is there. It's in the windblown, jut-jawed portrait that celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz made of her in 1999. And in the shrug she gave the Associated Press after a fuel leak almost forced her to make an emergency shuttle landing in Africa: "I knew we had an out somewhere." And it's in the headline that the magazine Irish America used for its "Irish of the Century" feature: "Eileen Collins: Rocket Woman."

Now, after a quarter-century of being singled out for being female in venues as unlikely as Air Force flight school, the Grenada invasion and space, Collins at 48 has become probably the best-known active-duty astronaut in the country -- of either sex.

And in nine days, barring delays, she will command Discovery on the first shuttle flight since Columbia disintegrated nearly 2 1/2 years ago. It will be the most watched launch in years, and it fell to Collins to lead it, not because she lobbied for the job or because she is who she is, but simply because she was next in line.

There are those who might say that being "next in line" is Collins's secret, for she seems to have been standing there ever since the day in 1978 when she was a Syracuse University ROTC senior and the Air Force decided to take women for pilot training. "I was six months from graduation," she said in a recent interview. "I applied immediately."

In the mid-1980s, when she wanted to fulfill a lifetime dream by becoming a math teacher, she chose the precise moment when the Air Force Academy was desperate for role models to inspire its first trickle of female cadets. "We were lucky to get her," said Air Force Col. Danny Litwhiler, head of the academy's mathematics department, noting the shortage of qualified female teachers with flying experience at that time.

But she did not get the job just because she was next in line, Litwhiler said. Even in 1986, Collins knew her own worth, and she did not like it when the Air Force grounded her temporarily after Grenada in 1983 for violating the edict that women not fly combat missions.

"Her bottom line at the time was 'I want to teach, and you won't let me fly to Grenada, so let me teach or I'll go fly somewhere else,' " Litwhiler said. "She is disarming and has this big smile, but if she battles you, watch out. You don't even know you're losing."

What Collins has always had, said Litwhiler and other colleagues and acquaintances who spoke about her, is a very clear idea of what she wants, and a talent for getting it -- but always as a team player, and always within the rules.

"Eileen had doors open for her, but the thing that was different was she took advantage of every one of them," said Jerri Truhill, one of 13 fabled members of the Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees -- picked by NASA in 1960 to train to fly in space but never allowed to go because they were women. "We pushed the envelope. She took the ball and ran with it."

The Trainees, virtually forgotten for decades after NASA shunted them aside, have enjoyed a recent return to the limelight, partly, perhaps, because Collins mentions them frequently and has invited them to every one of her launches.

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