the short biographical piece on Col. Eileen Collins that NASA
sent me, I was impressed. For one thing, she collects college
degrees the way I collect CDs. And these degrees are in pretty
challenging subjects: mathematics, science, economics, operations
research, and space systems management. Sheís a trained pilot
and a pilot trainer, and she also was an associate professor
of mathematics. Then thereís the small matter of being the first
woman to pilot, and then command, a NASA Space Shuttle. Hereís
what she had to say about her career as a Federal employee so
What are your feelings about Federal employment overall?
I have worked for the military or NASA for the last 21 years
of my life. I have been given tremendous opportunities for jobs,
for leadership, and for being on the leading edge of technology
in what Iím doing day to day. I have had opportunities to travel,
to work with people, and exciting challenging jobs. I wouldnít
change anything. Iíve enjoyed going to work every day.
What do you think is most important to Federal employees in
Making people really feel that they are a part of the overall
mission and their job is important. I look at the people that
actually do the hands-on work on the Shuttle at Kennedy Space
Center. When they see an astronaut come in, they say, "Oh, come
and look at my orbiter, come and look at my tires, my engine."
And, they feel like they really are a part of that orbiter.
This is the reason that the orbiter is flying so safely and
have a very lean workforce at the Johnson and Kennedy Space
Centers. One of the advantages of having such a lean workforce
is that the few people who are responsible for a certain system
are really responsible. Because of that, I have no problems
at all flying the Shuttle and trusting my life to these people.
I know a lot of them, and I know how dedicated they are to their
jobs. That makes us feel good.
What helped you most in your career?
The biggest help for me was just focusing and doing my current
job at the time and having support from my immediate supervisor,
which is something that the Air Force is focusing on. Immediate
supervisors are really taking an active role in their subordinatesí
career directions, and I think that is working well in the Air
What was the biggest hindrance to your career?
Probably the biggest hindrance was the law preventing women
from serving on combat aircraft and on combat ships. When I
first graduated from pilot training, I wanted
to fly fighters. That was in 1979. Because of the law against
women in combat, however, the Air Force obviously wasnít going
to spend a lot of money training me to fly an airplane that
Iíd never be able to fly in combat. But, I knew that if I just
did my job, and did it well, some day -- probably not for me
Ė but, some day, the law would change. And, it did, in April
of 1993. I remember how happy I was because, although it was
too late for me, maybe I was part of getting this law lifted.
Now, a woman can choose a job where she flies combat aircraft
or goes on a combat ship.
Have you gone where you intended to go with your career? Is
it something you chose and aimed for from an early age?
I canít give any specific moment when I decided what I wanted
to do. When I was a child, there were no women astronauts and
no women military pilots. But, as I grew up and started learning
more, the space program started becoming more visible. My first
memory was the Gemini program in the mid-1960s. Also, of course,
the Vietnam War started in the late 1960s. That was when I first
started to become aware that there were astronauts and there
were military pilots. When the Vietnam War was over, and I was
older, I started reading about the Vietnam War, and the pilots
really became my heroes. As I got older, I started wondering
why we didnít have women in these fields. Then, in 1976, the
Air Force selected the first women to be active duty pilots.
I graduated from college in 1978, the year that NASA first selected
women mission specialists for the Space Shuttle program. At
that point, it became a realistic goal for me, so I applied.
With a great desire to join the military, I decided to join,
whether I got to fly airplanes or not.
What was the attraction of military service?
Well there were lots of reasons. First of all, I thought that
citizens have a duty, at some point, to serve their country.
I liked the thought of what military life would be like. I like
organized, structured, very goal-oriented types of jobs. I like
working with people; I like working with a team. As the barriers
started falling for women, and for women pilots, I realized
that I could join the military and become a pilot. So, I applied
and was fortunate enough to get in. Soon, I started thinking
about the astronaut program.
Is it extremely competitive to become an astronaut?
Well, yes, it is. To be selected, you need an undergraduate
college degree, although you are not competitive unless you
have a Masters degree or a doctorate. You need three years of
related experience in your field. Your field and your degree
need to be in technical areas such as math, science, engineering,
or medicine. There are also physical requirements.
have interviews every two years. I would say we have almost
3,000 qualified applicants each time. And, I think weíd have
more if more people knew about it. From the candidates who apply,
we interview about 100. Picking the best qualified is a tough
job. We could probably hire everyone that comes down here to
interview because they usually exceed the requirements. Ultimately,
about 20 to 30 of the applicants actually become astronauts.
What happens after a new astronaut comes on-board? I imagine
thereís an ongoing learning experience, right?
Oh, yes. All new astronauts go through class together for about
a year. Then, you become an astronaut. But, all those astronauts
canít be assigned to a flight at the same time, so everyone
gets a support job somewhere within the space program. It can
take anywhere between one to six years to get assigned to your
first flight. It was more than four years before I flew my first
flight. But, when I flew my first flight, I was ready to go
because those jobs were really a continuation of my training.
We also do flight- readiness training with the T-38 aircraft
while weíre doing our other jobs. Itís a very important, inexpensive
way to keep up the astronautsí flight proficiency.
Isnít there a reinvention story around the T-38ís?
Yes; thatís a good point. The T-38 aircraft is a two-seat jet
trainer thatís been around since the late 1950s, and itís just
an excellent, easily maintained aircraft, exactly what we need
for training. We can also keep our costs down with this airplane
because itís used by the Air Force as well as NASA, and we have
common supply sources and maintenance procedures.
happening now is that the airplane is old, so itís getting very
expensive to buy parts. Instead of going to a whole new aircraft,
we upgraded our T-38s so they could use new technology. Now,
itís a much safer airplane, as well as much easier to maintain.
You mentioned that thereís a similar process with the Space
Shuttle. Whatís happening there?
Right. Shuttle upgrades are going on all the time. We are always
looking for ways we can fly the Space Shuttle safer, better,
and at a lower cost. We are always trying to keep our costs
down, especially in the Shuttle program, because that frees
up more money for other options in the space program. This goes
all the way down to the people at my level. Astronauts who use
the hardware every day think about how we can do things better
and how we can be more efficient.
could go build an entirely new space vehicle. Thatís been proposed.
But, youíve got to weigh the costs, the risks, and the amount
of time in building a whole new Space Shuttle versus taking
the Space Shuttles that are proven and very reliable and just
upgrading and making them better. In fact, Iím writing my post-flight
crew report right now for my mission that flew last month. Weíre
making specific recommendations on what we can do to make the
Shuttle safer and better, and all those recommendations will
be considered by our management. So, communication is very good.
Do astronauts and other Federal employees work closely together?
We do. It really is so important that the people who eventually
are going to fly on the Space Station are in there working with
the engineers and the flight controllers who are designing the
systems, developing them, and building them. It gives us the
opportunity, from a user point of view, to suggest changes to
the design up front so that when we get the Space Station up
there, we donít have to change it later.
just came back from a mission, and I got really familiar with
all the people that built the telescope that we put in space.
We were like a family, and now weíve got this telescope up in
space. And, itís doing great.
Do you have any advice to give to the next generation of potential
My advice to young people is this. Focus on three major areas:
academics, activities, and your physical health. I encourage
you, especially when you get into high school and you can choose
some of the courses you take, to take the tough courses. Donít
just avoid a course because you think you might not get an "A."
Take the tough courses like math, science, and engineering.
Learn a variety of things while you have the opportunity.
also encourage young people to join in community activities,
church activities, and sporting activities. It really helps
teach leadership, teamwork, and communication.
I encourage young people to eat right, sleep right, and stay
away from drugs and alcohol, especially if you want to be an
astronaut some day. We donít have any room for people who get
involved in things that are illegal, and we want people in tiptop
physical shape when they come to NASA.
Do you have any thoughts youíd like to share about your future?
Iím a person who likes to learn a lot of things. Maybe Iíll
go back to school again some day.
more information about NASAís astronaut program, visit NASAís
Email Me |