Who says women can’t fly space shuttles?

Few women have gone into space and yet fewer women have commanded space shuttles. In this highly male-dominated field, DiscovHER pays homage to Eileen Collins, an inspirational woman astronaut who achieved two major firsts: she was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission in 1996 and the first to command a space shuttle in 1999. Today is her 60th birthday.

Becoming an astronaut is hard work: many years of studying and solid experience are necessary, and an applicant is rarely accepted first time round. For civilian applicants, this means at least 1,000 hours flying time and an advanced degree in science, engineering or mathematics. Needless to say, candidates must also be in top physical shape. Few get through this grueling process, and only around 60 women have ever been selected to go into space.

Eileen Collins is a notable and inspirational exception. Keen to be a pilot since a young age, she earned a mathematics and economics degree before gaining the requisite experience by flying cargo planes for military and humanitarian missions for a number of years.

After several further years of NASA training, Collins became the first women to pilot a space shuttle, when Discovery took to the skies in February 1995. The following year, Collins took time off to give birth to a baby daughter, before returning to NASA and becoming the first female space shuttle commander in 1999. She commanded Columbia on a mission to launch the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a telescope capable of detecting X-rays from very hot regions of the earth, such as clusters of galaxies and matter that orbits black holes.

In 2005, Collins commanded Discovery on a historic mission. Two years earlier, disaster had struck when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the sky during its descent to earth and seven NASA astronauts tragically lost their lives. Fortunately for Collins and her crew, the biggest hiccup came from weather conditions in Florida, which caused the shuttle to be rerouted to California after several abandoned landing attempts. During this mission, Collins carried out the “Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver,” flipping the shuttle backwards to allow astronauts on the International Space Station to photograph its underbelly and ensure it hadn’t suffered any damage. This clever safety procedure has now become routine on every shuttle mission.

Collins retired in 2006, after having logged over 872 hours in space.

Have you ever dreamed of going into space? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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