A World Above

Photos courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery
of fear, not absence of fear.”
– Mark Twain

It’s a pity Mark Twain and Eileen Collins never met. But their common denominator is the town of Elmira, in the Chemung Valley south of Seneca Lake. Twain spent two decades of summers writing three of his famous novels there. And Elmira is the hometown of Collins, NASA’s first woman pilot astronaut and space shuttle commander, and the location from which she launched her flying career.

Recently I spoke by phone with Collins, a retired Air Force colonel, in her office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She will soon command the space shuttle Discovery, formally referred to by NASA as STS-114. The mission marks the shuttle’s return to flight after the Columbia accident two years ago. She graciously made time in her work schedule to share some memories about growing up in the Finger Lakes.

I would visit Seneca or Keuka Lakes for a summer vacation,” Collins related. “We didn’t own a cottage. We rented a cottage on the lake, or we stayed in a friend’s cottage. It would make for a nice getaway on the lake. This was obviously before the era of jet skis, so we would go canoeing or kayaking. We would spend some family time together for a week or two.”

“We” refers to her two brothers, her sister, and her parents, James E. and Rose Marie Collins. When she got older, they would visit the wineries surrounding the lakes. The inflection changed as she remembered one particular anecdote: “One place had a beehive with honey. You could go in and buy a hunk of it and eat it straight out of the hive.”

Watkins Glen State Park remains one of Collins’ favorite spots. She recalled that Paul Newman visited its racetrack in the 1960s and 1970s. Although she did not attend his races, Collins painted a sweeping portrait of the park, the waterfall, the gorge and the huge Olympic swimming pool. She added: “I visited there last summer. I return to the area, now with my family, once every year or two.”

Nurtured in the Soaring Capital of America
The Elmira-Corning Regional Airport and the neighboring glider field at Harris Hill hold special places in Collins’ heart as fond Finger Lakes memories.

A passion for aviation captured Collins’ attention even in childhood. A popular science fiction television show mesmerized her with flying. Collins’ parents would frequently take her to the airport to watch the planes take off and land. She spent summer camp near Harris Hill, watching the gliders soar overhead. But her family never had the money for flying lessons or even for a ride in an airplane. The desire to fly continued to build.

Then Collins stumbled across a pivotal question in Junior Scholastic magazine. She was attending St. Patrick’s School in Elmira at the time. “I remember reading an article called ‘Pro Versus Con: Should We Spend Money on the Space Program or Not?’” reported Collins in a NASA video interview years later. “As I read that article, I could not understand why anybody would say no. It was obvious to me, as a fourth grader, that we needed to learn about space. I was more fascinated with what we didn’t know rather than what we did know. That was when I started learning about the astronauts and their backgrounds, and figuring out what you needed to do to become an astronaut. From that point on, I was always very interested in space. What did inspire me was the Gemini program, which led to the Apollo program and the moon landings.”

As a 16-year-old high school student at Elmira Free Academy, Collins began working at Pudgies Pizza. By age 19 she had saved up $1,000 to pay for flying lessons at the local airport. She spent the summers of 1977 and 1978 mostly off the ground. Collins’ flight instructor and inspiration was A.J. Davis, a former F-4 pilot in Vietnam. He started her in Cessna aircraft. She eventually earned her glider license, a tribute to her birthplace.

Earning Astronaut Wings
Elmira’s homegrown flygirl left the area for the Air Force in August 1978. That same year, Collins arrived at another crossroads in her life. She elaborated about it in a NASA video interview: “I saw that there was an opportunity to apply to be an astronaut. I decided I wanted to be an astronaut in 1978. It was also the year that I graduated from college [with a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics and economics from Syracuse University], and the first year that NASA selected women for the space shuttle program. That’s when the career of being an astronaut first became a reality to me, and when I really started looking forward to doing this someday.”

But first Collins had to build a flying career that would attract the attention of the NASA folks. She attended Air Force undergraduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base (AFB) in Enid, Oklahoma, staying on after graduation as a T-38 instructor pilot. Later, at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Collins served as an assistant professor in mathematics, one of her favorite subjects, and as a T-41 instructor pilot.

During this time, Collins twice applied for selection as an Air Force candidate for NASA’s subsequent selection as an astronaut. The military declined her both times. She did not have proper qualifications, from the perspective of the Air Force, to be detailed to the astronaut program.
Collins explained that rationalization to me during our chat: “One has to be releasable by the Air Force. That depends on time on service, time on station, and several other factors. I had to go through two selection boards, not just one: one at the Air Force and one at NASA.”

Meanwhile Collins taxied closer to the runway of her space career. She attended the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California.
At last the military felt she was fully qualified for astronaut wings. Collins applied once to NASA, in 1989, both as a pilot astronaut and as a mission specialist or scientist astronaut. The following year she got in as a pilot astro in NASA’s Group 13, nicknamed the Hairballs.

Bill Gregory, at the time an Air Force test pilot himself, was chosen for the same astronaut class – even interviewing at NASA the same week Collins did. They worked together during the summer of 1990 as astronauts-in-training. “I gave her a bunch of grief in survival school,” he recently revealed to me.

Gregory, with his characteristic good humor and sharp wit, summarized one “corny” episode that occurred while the class practiced parachute landing falls during parasailing training in Enid. “We were driving to our destination [on Vance AFB] when Eileen said, ‘Hey, turn here. I’ll show you where I lived.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?! We’re on a strict time schedule! We can’t divert our direction!’ But she was adamant about showing us her home.” The incident typified Collins’ class nickname of Mom.

Three Flights on Orbit, and Counting
During my phone interview with Collins, we named off several astronauts who have deep roots in upstate New York. Ed Lu considers Webster, outside of Rochester, his hometown. Bill Gregory hails from the Niagara region, just west of the Finger Lakes. Collins jumped in with “Pam Melroy is from Rochester.”

The name of NASA’s second woman pilot astronaut triggered another memory from Collins: the National Women’s Hall of Fame, located in Seneca Falls. “I receive an invitation every year to their induction ceremony. Eight to 10 women are inducted every year.” Collins modestly did not divulge that she herself was inducted there in 1995, when she flew as NASA’s first woman shuttle pilot that February.

That milestone space flight, STS-63, was also the shuttle’s historic first rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir. Astronaut Jim Wetherbee, a native of Long Island, commanded the mission. A Navy test pilot before landing at NASA, he spent over a year in training with Collins prior to launch.

“By the time we flew,” Wetherbee recently recounted to me via e-mail, “I had great confidence in her ability to perform complicated procedures with no mistakes. She was very precise. We had a very challenging set of procedures late in the flight on one of the secondary events. Other astronauts may not have spent enough time studying the secondaries, but she was flawless on orbit. I had no doubt that she would be prepared, and she was.”

Wetherbee continued: “Probably the thing I like about her the most is that she was never motivated by the publicity surrounding her career and accomplishments. She simply wants to fly. She was the perfect choice to be the first woman pilot, with all the potential for high stress and added distractions. … She accepts her responsibilities as a role model. … [During STS-63] the pressure must have been intense, but she just ignored it. At least it appeared that way. She’s so good at it, I’m sure she spent time thinking about it. But it was not obvious that it affected her. She’s a real pro.”

Ed Lu made his rookie astronaut flight on STS-84, Collins’ second mission as pilot. They rendezvoused and docked with Mir, seeing firsthand how a space station operates. “She was a great crewmate,” enthused Lu to me recently. “She is one of my favorite crewmates that I flew with. She is always pleasant to be around. She looks out for each crewmate.”

What qualities and skills did Lu see Collins display that prepared her for being a commander on her next space flight? “During our flight training, I was impressed with her flying in the T-38s,” Lu related. “She exercised good judgment, where you put yourself in a situation where things work out. That’s also the mark of a good pilot. She doesn’t take unnecessary chances. Her flying was very smooth.” Lu, a private pilot himself, further commented: “Everybody in the [astronaut] office likes her. She is one of the most-liked astronauts. She is very much a small-town girl. She is very grounded.”

The assignment of Collins as the first woman shuttle commander on STS-93 was deemed significant enough to announce at the White House on March 5, 1998. Collins and her crew of four astronauts deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory in July 1999.

Ironically, that first command – Collins’ most recent stint orbiting Earth – was flown aboard shuttle Columbia. As a poignant result, expect to see homage from Collins and her crew of six to their seven astronaut friends who were lost on Columbia. STS-114 Discovery will dock to the International Space Station (ISS) this summer.

I asked Collins if there was anything she would like to say directly to individuals in her hometown area, the Finger Lakes community.

“There are a lot of things,” Collins replied. She pondered for a moment, collecting her thoughts. Then she answered with standard astronaut succinctness: “People need to know that shuttle flights are very important to complete the ISS. We need the station research to go to the moon and to Mars.” NASA is of course focused on fulfilling President Bush’s mandate, issued over a year ago, for humans to explore beyond Earth’s vicinity.

On the personal level, how does her family feel about her life in the spotlight? Collins met her husband while both of them were flying C-141 military cargo planes. Pat Youngs, a golf coach formerly at the Air Force Academy (“an excellent amateur golfer,” remarked Gregory), now flies for Delta Air Lines. In her NASA return-to-flight video interview last year, Collins highlighted how his flying background is an asset to her career: “He really understands the flying environment. He understands the risks involved in flying. He has been just tremendously supportive.” The two aviators have a 9-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.

Elmira’s adopted author Mark Twain humorously proclaimed himself a liar. Elmira’s native flygirl Eileen Collins has not had reason to soar to the dark side. In the words of Hairball astronaut Ken Cockrell: “Eileen is as transparently honest as they come.”

by Jill Michaels
Jill Michaels, a freelance writer currently based in southern Idaho, has covered space-related topics for over five years. Her work has been published domestically and internationally in both magazines and newspapers.

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