Fly High, Dream Big: The Inspiring Career of Eileen Collins 



by Jules Staelgraeve

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting retired Air Force Colonel Eileen Collins after  hearing her speak about her work with NASA. She was one of the first female pilots I ever encountered, and, at thirteen years old, I was in awe. Meeting her fueled the passion I have for serving my country and, at the time, set me on a path toward a career in aviation.  

Eileen Marie Collins first wanted to become an astronaut in the fourth grade, despite the fact that the astronaut program was not open to women at the time. She joined the military through ROTC, and became one of the first four women to go through pilot training at Vance Air Force Base. Afterwards, Collins worked as a T-38 instructor pilot, then as a C-141 commander and instructor pilot. But her contributions haven’t just come in the cockpit, for a few years, she was the assistant mathematics professor and the United States Air Force Academy. However, Collins realized that if she wanted to fulfill her true passion of becoming an astronaut, she would need to head to Edwards Air Force Base in California to attend Air Force Test Pilot School.  

It paid off. Selected for astronaut training at NASA in January 1990, Collins became an astronaut the next year. For a time, she worked in mission control and logistics, but her first space mission was on the Discovery for eight days in February in 1995. It was the first joint mission of the Russian-American Space Program, but it was also historic because Collins became the first female space shuttle pilot.

Her second mission came a little over two years later, on the Atlantis, in May of 1997. But on her third mission, she once again made history, this time as the first female commander of a space shuttle mission on the Columbia in July of 1999.

Upon being named the first female shuttle commander, Collins said, “When I was a child, I dreamed about space—I admired pilots, astronauts, and I’ve admired explorers of all kinds. It was only a dream that I would someday be one of them. It is my hope that all children—boys and girls—will see this mission and be inspired to reach for their dreams, because dreams do come true!”

Her fourth and final mission was STS-114 Discovery (26JUL05-9AUG05), of which she was again the mission commander. 

Collins would return to space one more time before retiring from the Air Force on 1 May, 2006. Throughout her career—with the Air Force and NASA—she logged over five thousand hours in thirty different types of aircraft and over five hundred hours in space. She is truly an inspiration for girls hoping to pursue careers in aeronautics across the country, and even the globe. She certainly inspires me as I continue down my path into the Navy… maybe one day I'll even end up in the aerospace community, following in Collins' esteemed footsteps.

Jules Staelgraeve is a freshman at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, where she also serves in the Navy ROTC program. Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Jules is the proud daughter of a retired Navy Petty Officer 1st class. She is currently the National Security Outreach intern at Human Rights First, where she supports the work of Veterans for American Ideals.