On Feb. 3, 1995, astronaut Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. On July 23, 1999, she became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. And on July 20, 2016, she will become the first female shuttle pilot and commander to speak at a Republican National Convention.
With its implied support of Donald Trump, this appearance has left many scientists and space experts scratching their heads. Why would someone who rode a rocket through glass ceilings speak at this event?
Collins joined NASA’s astronaut program in 1990 after flying as a pilot in the Air Force. (She was the second woman pilot ever to graduate from the Air Force test-pilot school.*) She spent more than 872 hours orbiting our home planet and retired from NASA in 2006, stating at the time that she wanted to spend more time with her family and allow the next generation of astronauts to have a shot at the shuttle.
Earlier this year, she also spent time in the space policy world, and now she's broaching the purely political one. In February, as SpaceNews reported, she spoke at a House Science Committee hearing about NASA’s management structure and its canceled Constellation program. This program was to be the shuttle’s crewed-spaceflight successor, and it would have sent people to the International Space Station, the moon and Mars. Instead, NASA is now pursuing the Space Launch System and its Orion capsule, which is intended to skip the moon and send astronauts to Mars. Collins disapproved of the decision to cancel Constellation, and some speculate on background that her remarks at the convention may address an ongoing debate over whether astronauts should be sent to the moon again before a crewed mission to Mars.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the day of her speech is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.
Collins isn’t the first astronaut to use her space celebrity for political ends. “There’s a long-running precedent of some astronauts becoming politicians and becoming political,” said John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
The shift is as old as the space program itself. Astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, later became a senator and made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt also held a Senate seat as a Republican, and Jack Swigert, also of Apollo, was elected to Congress as a Republican from Colorado.* Congressman Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, took the opposite tack, beginning as a politician and making an appearance as an astronaut in 1985.
Logsdon says some of the qualities that make astronauts astronauts also lend themselves to the political arena. “There’s a special quality about any astronaut,” he said. “They do represent risk-taking. They also represent a leadership perspective.”
These days, he said, the astronaut corps has a “diversity of perspectives.” But in the early days, the astronauts tended to be politically conservative. The first astronauts — those in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs — came mostly from military and fighter-pilot backgrounds. “[They] were also by and large conservative in orientation,” Logsdon said. “But with the opening up of the astronaut corps with the shuttle, where you didn’t have to be a fighter jock to be able to fly, there is a very wide range of personalities. Colonel Collins comes out of the military fighter pilot tradition. She may be someone that is like a throwback to the original astronaut group.”
That said, Logsdon wouldn’t have pegged her as a likely convention speaker. “She’s a low-key, extremely pleasant, not strident, not aggressive personality,” he said. “So frankly it’s a bit surprising to me she’s willing to do this. But it must represent her thoughtful views.”
Other space experts also expressed surprise. “Personally, Collins speaking at the Republican National Convention, given Trump's almost archaic stance on women and overall human rights and equality in this country, seems a little odd,” said Amy Shira Teitel, spaceflight historian and author of "Breaking the Chains of Gravity." “How can the first woman to command the shuttle — and arguably really break the gender barrier for NASA — support Trump?”
But as Teitel points out, Collins hasn’t spoken about the specifics of her political stance, or her reasons for whatever those specifics are.
Still, her status as a multiple “female first” complicates people’s reactions — especially in an election where Hillary Clinton is a female first, potentially, for commander in chief — no matter how nuanced Collins’s views may be.
Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to go into space, said, “The danger I see is when prominent people lend their name and credibility to issues or individuals and that appearance gets misconstrued and taken out of context.”
“Being a ‘first’ frequently provides a platform or credibility, and yes, it also often makes people think they ‘know’ everything about you,” Jemison added. “But that single accomplishment doesn't define you. I don’t think we should have a simple expectation about who Eileen is.”
Collins’s ceiling-breaking made her a hero of sorts for many women. People have taken to Twitter to express classic “downfall of a hero” sentiments.
Eileen Collins is speaking at the GOP convention. She used to be my hero.
— Amy Berg (@bergopolis) July 14, 2016
Surprised by Eileen Collins. Very disappointing. Not a role model for my daughter.
— ValleyGirl (@DianaPo56926076) July 14, 2016
Ariel Waldman, who co-authored a National Academy of Sciences study on the future of human spaceflight, said, “It is frustrating when your heroes disappoint you, but it is important to acknowledge that they, too, are human, and it is unfair to ask anyone to stick to some narrow script to appease your own snapshot of them.”
And it is true that we are all allowed our own views. This is, after all, America. “I understand why there is some shock that an astronaut would come out so strongly for a candidate that has racist and sexist ideologies,” Waldman said.
“Society very much ascribes space exploration as an endeavor that's transpersonal in nature and for all humankind,” she said — and she would know, having collected first-person accounts of astronaut experiences for her book "What’s It Like in Space?" Those experiences, in a folkloric sense, are supposed to give astronauts a kind of cosmic, one-Earth perspective — no national borders, man; space is so big, and yet we are so small — which, many would assume, would make them at least a little liberal.
“However, I would equally not want to live in a world where astronauts are a monoculture, like they were in the past,” Waldman said.
Still, it seems strange to some that an astronaut would show up for a presidential candidate who is, if not anti-science, at least anti-logic in the climate-science arena.
Logsdon rejects the idea that Collins’s appearance should constitute a statement one way or the other about science or its future. “She is a career military pilot, so her views on science are no different than many other people's,” he said. “She has no particular expertise in science. She has expertise in flying complex systems. The people who flew the shuttle didn’t do the science.”
And just because a person has made a trip to space doesn’t mean their thoughts align with mainstream science (although we don’t know that Collins’s do not). Edgar Mitchell, of Apollo, believed aliens had visited Roswell, N.M., which he claimed was not the only time UFOs had hovered over Earth. And in 2012, 49 ex-NASA employees, including astronauts, signed a climate-change denial letter.
Collins does, though, have expertise in space policy and planning, having served on NASA’s advisory council and helped shape the Obama administration’s approach to future exploration, says Logsdon. And that background would be a boon to the Republican Party. “If Mr. Trump were to be elected, it’s good that he is drawing upon very well-respected people to represent the views of the space community,” Logsdon said.
Corrections: This article originally stated that Eileen Collins was the second woman to graduate from the Air Force test-pilot school. She was the second woman pilot to graduate; other women had graduated with different specializations. This article originally stated that astronaut Jack Swigert served in Congress. He was elected but died before taking office.
Sarah Scoles is a science writer in Denver, Colo. Follow her on Twitter.