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.

"We see her as somebody really special," said Truhill, now 76 and retired from flying. "She even had two children between flights, and that tickles us, too. For every reason they said we couldn't do it, she's proved them wrong."

But she never rubs anyone's nose in it. "In my job I'm not aware of the difference between male and female crew members," she told reporters recently. "It may be meaningful to the rest of the world that a woman is leading this flight, and I think that's great. For me, it's a way of life."

Like many astronauts, Collins has impeccable public relations skills, regularly serving up bromides on diverse subjects including the value of human spaceflight -- "Being an explorer is human destiny" -- and the repeated postponements of Discovery's launch -- "We're not going to fly until we're ready to fly."

She surrenders some personal tidbits: Her parents were her role models; she learned about flying by watching gliders in Elmira, the "Soaring Capital of America"; roller coasters "scare me to death"; and, yes, the guys used to call her Mom, and sometimes still do.

But she yields little information about her children, Bridget, 9, and Luke, 4, or her husband, Pat Youngs, a former Air Force pilot now flying for Delta Air Lines. Her telephone numbers -- and Youngs's -- are unlisted. She does not appear to like being called Mom by adults. She guards her privacy like a celebrity, because that's what she is.

But it's also beside the point, said former astronaut James D. Wetherbee, who commanded the 1995 mission to the Mir space station with Collins as the first woman ever to pilot a shuttle. "Deep down," Wetherbee said, paying her the ultimate pilot's compliment, "she just wants to fly."

This was not always apparent. Eileen Marie Collins was born in Elmira on Nov. 19, 1956, the second of four children to James Collins, a surveyor and postal worker, and his wife, Rose Marie. Her parents split up when she was 9, and she lived in public housing, graduating from Elmira Free Academy in 1974.

"I was always fascinated by the geometry in my father's job, and I wanted to be a teacher," she said, so she entered Corning Community College, close to home, and graduated with an associate's degree in mathematics and science in 1976.

So far, so ordinary. "She wasn't somebody who comes in and is super-gifted," said Lawrence Josbeno, chairman of the college's physics department. "She was a good student, but I tell my young women students today you could be Eileen Collins."

Maybe. Collins today is an almost mythical figure in Elmira, a frequent visitor who attends Mass at St. Peter & Paul's Church, writes inspirational columns for area newspapers and makes periodic public appearances. Corning Community College has a 20-inch telescope at the Eileen Collins Observatory.

But even though Collins talks today about watching "Star Trek" as a kid and going to Harris Hill to look at the gliders, her dedication to flight apparently arose, at least in part, because of a cold calculation she made at Corning: "There was an overflow of teachers. So I learned about airplanes."

And went to Syracuse. Anticipating the Air Force's upcoming change of heart about female pilots, she took flying lessons before her senior year, working as a waitress at Pudgie's Pizza to pay for them.

"Oh, yeah. She was good," said Alan Davis, a former fighter pilot who taught Collins at a local airport. "I was able to chat with her about some of my experiences, but she didn't need pep talks."

Air Force 2nd Lt. Collins graduated in 1979 from pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., in the first class to accept women, and remained as an instructor on T-38 jet trainers. Then she transferred to Travis Air Force Base in California, where she met Youngs and flew C-141 cargo jets.

She went to the Air Force Academy in 1986 after negotiating a deal that allowed her first to get a master's degree in applied mathematics at Stanford University so she could qualify for an academy job. While at the academy she earned a second master's in space systems management from Webster University.

"She was already known as an outstanding pilot in the C-141 world when we got her," Litwhiler recalled. "They didn't want to let her go, but she was very persistent." And there was something else: "She wanted to go to test pilot school."

And, of course, she did.

By 1989, after two years at the academy, Collins was as hot a property as the Air Force had. "She had 1,500 hours in two different aircraft -- and an engineering background," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, former head of the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base and, as NASA's deputy associate administrator for the shuttle and space station, Collins's boss. Kostelnik had been watching her for two years because "she was exactly what we were looking for."

Collins became only the second woman to complete test-pilot school, but she was gone almost as soon as she graduated -- accepted, on her first try, to become an astronaut.

From that moment until today, she has lived in a fishbowl. There were 23 astronauts in the class of 1990, but only one was both a woman and a test pilot. From the day she arrived at Johnson Space Center, she was destined to become the first woman to pilot the space shuttle.

It happened in February 1995 with Wetherbee aboard Discovery, the same orbiter she will fly this month. Two years later she piloted Atlantis to rendezvous and docking with Mir, and in early 1998, President Bill Clinton brought her to the White House to announce that she would be the first woman to command a shuttle flight. "Her life," Clinton said, "is a story of challenges set and challenges met."

She cemented her mystique aboard Columbia as shuttle commander on July 23, 1999, when two of the main engine computers short-circuited on launch. Backups kicked in, but a second breakdown -- a leak of liquid hydrogen -- threatened to leave Columbia out of gas and not yet in orbit. An emergency landing loomed.

She never lost her cool, and Columbia had just enough fuel to creep into space. Five days later, after placing the Chandra X-Ray Observatory safely in orbit, Collins glided to a feather-light landing at Kennedy Space Center. "Eileen rocks," said pilot Jeff Ashby.

Collins was named to command the upcoming Discovery flight long before the Columbia accident and has waited for nearly 2 1/2 years while her spacecraft was outfitted with new safety features and the mission reshaped as a test flight for new equipment and procedures.

If the tedium and the endless questions -- about the shuttle's safety, about NASA's shortcomings, about the symbolism of making the first post-Columbia flight -- are wearing thin, she doesn't show it. "I am very excited to be here and very proud to be part of this great team," she said at a recent news conference.

But the other Collins is always in the background.

"I have no nerves, no emotion, no pressure," she said in an interview after the news conference, dismissing a question about all the attention her upcoming flight is getting. "I've got a $2 billion spacecraft on my hands. I don't think about what's happening outside."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company