Going where no woman has gone before

When Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins straps into the left front seat of the space shuttle Columbia tomorrow morning, she will shatter a glass ceiling first erected 38 years ago.

In 1961, NASA selected 13 women as astronaut candidates for the Mercury program. None led a mission. But now, for the first time in the history of US spaceflight, a woman will command a crew heading for space.

During Colonel Collins's 21-year career, she's bucked cockpit machismo in the Air Force and endured a death threat. But while she's keenly aware of her unique standing, she adds, "I didn't come here to be the first woman in any position. I came here because I love to fly,... and I wanted to be an astronaut."

That's enough to make Donna Weistrop, a former NASA contractor, downright giddy. Watching Collins during a television interview Friday,“I was tempted to scream, ‘You go, girl!’” she says. “We physicists don’t do that too often.” But there’s also a more serious side to Dr. Weistrop’s reflections. The ranks of women astronauts have slowly grown since NASA opened its doors to them in 1978. And, in many ways, Collins’s shuttle flight is representative of women’s increasing role in spaceflight – as astronauts, designers, and technicians. “This is a significant breakthrough,” says Weistrop, who spent 12 years working for NASA before taking a post as a physics professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

End of a long road The March 1998 announcement naming Collins commander for this mission marked the final stage in an evolution that began in 1983 with Sally Ride’s first shuttle flight, making her the first American woman to travel to space. In 1984, Kathy Sullivan became the first woman of any nationality to conduct a space walk. Shannon Lucid captured the US record for continuous time in space, and the world’s record for a female, when she spent 188 days on the Russian space station Mir in 1996. And Collins became the shuttle program’s first female pilot, sitting in the front right-hand seat in 1995 and 1997. Today, out of 139 astronauts on NASA’s roster, 20 percent are women. The selection of a woman to lead a space mission “has been a long time coming,” given the prominent role female pilots have played in the history of US aviation, Collins said during a recent press briefing. A breakthrough nearly came during the early days of NASA’s manned-spaceflight program, when it became clear the USSR was training a female cosmonaut. Nearly a year after NASA began its screening program to select the first male astronauts – who would become known as the Mercury 7 – it began a similar screening program for women who had at least four years of college and the right flying experience. They were subjected to the same rigorous physical exams as the men. From 1960 to mid-1961, 13 passed and were sworn in as the Mercury 13. But in the end the space agency opted to go with the male astronauts, all of whom were pulled from military aviation. Seven of those women attended the launch of Collins’s first mission in 1995. “For females in the flying world, it’s always been a battle,” acknowledges Col. Daniel Litwhiler, chairman of the math department at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Collins taught math and served as a flight instructor for three years. She arrived at the academy in 1985 after nearly quitting the Air Force, he says. During the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Collins commanded a C-141 cargo craft and took part in the evacuation of US medical students from the tiny Caribbean island. “Her superiors found out about it and they grounded her,” he says. “She was one of the best pilots they had, but she was a woman, and women couldn’t fly in combat.” Her frustration grew until “she came in and presented her superiors with her separation papers, and that’s how we got her,” Colonel Litwhiler continues. “I hired her as a role model, and in the last 25 years, she’s been one of my best role models” for students. But, he adds, her heart was set on becoming an astronaut. Even while she taught cadets math and the art and science of flying, she was earning a master’s degree in space-systems management. One more stop would remain along the route to Houston – Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, near Palmdale, Calif. – where Collins landed in 1989. The school had accepted female applicants before, but they largely came as navigators or engineers. Collins was only the second woman to enter the demanding school as a pilot. Her presence “was a novelty,” recalls Lt. Col. John Kirk, Collins’s classmate and next-door neighbor during her year there. But she also was the highest ranking officer in her class of 25 students, and was the class’s leader. “Eileen lent stability and calmness to the whole group,” Colonel Kirk recalls. “She did well as a student and we did well as a class.” NASA selected her for astronaut training as she wrapped up her year at Edwards. For all Collins’s tenacity, “She doesn’t come across as a battler,” Litwhiler says. “You look at her, petite and smiling, and you say, ‘I’ll beat her.’ Then she’ll have you pinned.” Yet Collins’s efforts have come at a personal cost. After her first shuttle flight in 1995, her home town of Elmira, N.Y., planned a ticker-tape parade. The day of the parade, a caller phoned the local paper threatening to kill Collins. The parade was canceled, and since then NASA has been selective about her public appearances.

Looking forward For her part, Weistrop says she hopes the hole Collins has punched in the astronaut corps’ glass ceiling “will be big enough for others to go through.” But Collins notes that it takes more than a hole in the ceiling to get more women in space exploration. “You can’t just walk into this job,” she says. “You have to prepare yourself.... If we don’t have the people apply – if we don’t have large numbers of women apply for this job – it’s going to be difficult for us to select women.”

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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