One of America’s greatest achievements has been putting man on the moon. Our space program has grown tremendously since the first shuttle went into space in April 1981.

Little did NASA know that 25 years before that, the first female pilot and the first woman to  command a space shuttle was born. Not only that, she also received the Distinguished Flying Cross for her work while at NASA.

Eileen Marie Collins was born on November 19, 1956. Raised in Elmira New York, Collins attended the Elmira Free Academy. She knew at a young age that she wanted to be in space, “When I was very young and first started reading about astronauts, there were no women astronauts.” As she got older, she was able to take advantage of being in aviation due to opportunities being afforded to women, “I wanted to be part of our nation’s space program. It’s the greatest adventure on this planet-or off the planet, for that matter. I wanted to fly the Space Shuttle.”

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In 1976, she received an associate’s degree in mathematics/science from Corning Community College and a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics and economics in 1978 from Syracuse University. At Syracuse, Collins joined the Air Force ROTC. Afterwards, she attended pilot training school. In addition, she received two master’s degrees, the first being a master of science degree in operational research from Stanford University in 1986, and three years later, a master of arts degree in space systems management from Webster University.

The same year Collins received her second master’s degree, she graduated from Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance AFB in Oklahoma. There she was a T-38 instructor pilot until 1982. She was a commander and instructor pilot of a C-141 aircraft from 1983-1985 and from 1986-1989, she was an assistant professor in mathematics and a T-41 instructor pilot at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado.

While Collins was attending Air Force Test Pilot School in California at Edwards AFB, she was selected to be a part of the astronaut program. Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle after doing so twice, once in 1995 and again in 1997, and became the first female commander after doing so once in 1999 and again in 2005.

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Being the first and only female Shuttle commander for her time has been great, but Collins was excited to pass the torch to another young woman. Collins encourages young women to join programs and take on jobs that have long since been reserved for men to help take us to new heights, “The young people are going to be the ones to take us on to more exciting adventures.”

Being able to be a part of a program such as the space program was a great experience and her thoughts on the most exciting part of the job changed over the years, “If you had asked me this question after my first mission, I would have said the launch. Now, I would say seeing the successful completion of the mission.”

Throughout her illustrious career both at NASA and in the Air Force, Collins has been awarded numerous accolades and they include:

  • Defense Superior Service Medal
  • Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Defense Meritorious Service Medal
  • Air Force Meritorious Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster
  • Air Force Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster
  • Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for service in Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury, October 1983)
  • French Legion of Honor
  • NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal
  • NASA Space Flight Medals
  • Free Spirit Award
  • National Space Trophy

Collins logged over 6,751 hours in 20 different types of aircraft over the years before retiring from the Air Force in January 2005 after achieving the rank of Colonel. As for space travel, Collins would love to see it blossom, “I would like to see more people traveling to space someday. I would like to see space tourism blossom. It’s such an incredible experience. I just think that’s really exciting. That’s an experience that more people ought to have. I think we’d have a better community on Earth if more people traveled in space.”

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