Eileen Collins


Eileen Collins


NASA's First Female Shuttle Pilot


On February 4th, 1995 at 12:22 a.m, Eileen Collins was about to be launched into space. With the takeoff of the STS-63 space shuttle, Collins would become the first woman to pilot a U.S. space shuttle. Only a few years later, Collins would set yet another new precedent when she became the first woman to command a U.S. space shuttle (Columbia) on July 23, 1999. Despite the gravity of these accomplishments, Eileen Collins remained a humble and motivated public servant throughout her life. Her teacher, the retired Air Force pilot Alan Davis, would highlight this point when he stated: “she was methodical, determined, quiet, and reserved”. These personal characteristics of Collins would serve her well in her career as a NASA astronaut, and were seemingly cultivated long before she stepped onto a spacecraft.

Collins was born on November 19th, 1956 in Elmira, New York. Her mother and father struggled financially, but still imbued Eileen with the love of flight. As a child, one of Eileen’s favorite things to do was go with her parents to the airport and watch the planes takeoff. She would always imagine that one day she would be the pilot in the cockpit soaring high above the ground. As a teenager, Collins spent much of her time reading military flight books and studying mathematics and other scientific disciplines. She was so steadfast when it came to her life goals, that she worked various part-time jobs in order to save the one thousand dollars necessary for flight lessons. After graduating from Elmira Free Academy in 1974, Collins continued her education at Corning Community College.

It was  from this college that Eileen received an associate’s degree in mathematics and science. Two years later, she graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics. During this transitional phase of her life, Eileen still had her dream of flying, but was considering a career in academia. Her urge to take to the skies was so great however, that she eventually decided to join the Air Force Pilots Training Company, with a cohort of three other women.The four of them were part of the first class of women that were accepted to become Navy pilots. Simultaneously, NASA was also in the process of accepting its first class of female astronauts in 1978. During her training in the Air Force, Collins would yearn to take her capabilities far above this earth. It was a chance encounter in Oklahoma where NASA astronauts happened to be training, that Collins first recognized the possibility of exploring space. Collins was ecstatic over the idea of becoming an astronaut, but realized that she did not have enough education to accomplish her goal. Consequently, over the next decade, Collins would teach for the Navy flight school and pursue multiple advanced degrees in astronomy and space technologies.

In 1990, Collins was selected by NASA to become an astronaut. Her ability to remain calm under tense situations, and to think critically would be the defining traits of her professional self. For example, during a routine flight with Russian cosmonauts in her early career, a propeller began to leak. While the Russian cosmonauts began panicking, Collins and her crew were able to assure them that they would still have the ability to make it to their station safely. It would be instances like these that would elevate Collins to becoming the first female pilot for NASA five years later. Collins relates her mental toughness to the rigorous training curriculum at NASA; when asked about the stress of going into space, Collins said, “I have no nerves, no emotion, no pressure.”

Eileen Collins was a woman pilot and astronaut that exemplified courage and bravery. However, her humbleness is personified in how she spoke about her career: “Look back over history, people have put their lives at stake to go out and explore…We believe in what we’re doing. Now it’s time to go.” Collins was avante garde for her time and remains an inspiration to women interested in astronomy to this day. 


“Bio of Eileen Collins.” Essays Database, n.d. https://www.essaysadepts.com/biographies/Eileen-Collins-28763.html. 

Dunbar, Brian. “Inspiring the Future.” NASA. NASA. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/F_Inspiring_the_Future_5-8.htm.

“Collins, Eileen (1956-).” 1998. Encyclopedia of World Biography, January. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxysuf.flo.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.148418222&site=eds-live.

Roby, Lily. 2021. “First Female Space Commander Eileen Collins to Speak in Frontiers in Science Series.” UWIRE Text, February 16. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxysuf.flo.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgin&AN=edsgcl.651900704&site=eds-live.

Showstack, Randy. “Collins Named First Woman Shuttle Commander.” AGU Journals. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, October 19, 2006. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1029/98EO00108. 

Smith, Evan. 2006. “Eileen Collins.” Texas Monthly 34 (7): 68–74. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxysuf.flo.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=21182823&site=eds-live.

“15 Extraordinary Women: Eileen Collins.” 2003. Biography 7 (7): 61. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxysuf.flo.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=9978625&site=eds-live.

Further Reading:

Cavallaro, Umberto. 2017. Women Spacefarers. [Electronic Resource] : Sixty Different Paths to Space. 1st ed. 2017. Space Exploration. Springer International Publishing. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxysuf.flo.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03139a&AN=suff.b2027864&site=eds-live.

Eileen Collins. 2017. Legends of Air Power. 3 Roads Communications, Inc. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxysuf.flo.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03139a&AN=suff.b3193349&site=eds-live.

“Eileen Marie Collins.” 2011. Hutchinson’s Biography Database, July, 1. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxysuf.flo.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edo&AN=32215835&site=eds-live.

Schwartz, John. 2005. “To Return Shuttle to Space, NASA Calls on Cool Leader.” The New York Times, April 17. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxysuf.flo.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgin&AN=edsgcl.131579005&site=eds-live.


Caroline Miles




Caroline Miles, Eileen Collins

Cite As

Caroline Miles, “Eileen Collins,” Virtual Museum of Public Service, accessed August 20, 2022, https://vmps.omeka.net/items/show/265.