The 2009 book Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, written by Tanya Lee Stone, details the struggles encountered by the “Mercury 13,” a group of women pilots subjected to many of the same tests undergone by the Mercury astronauts—but who were denied the right to fly into space based upon their gender. One of the final chapters in the book is entitled, “We Want to See a Woman Driving the Bus, Not Sitting in the Back.”
On July 23, 1999, decades after this intrepid group of women dared to even dream of space, a woman was finally “driving the bus”: An Air Force flyer, Eileen Collins, became the first woman to command a space shuttle on STS-93 (Columbia). Today marks 15 years since that pioneering milestone in spaceflight history.
While many women had flown into space (physicist Sally Ride had become the first U.S. woman in space 16 years earlier on STS-7 in 1983), a woman had never commanded a shuttle mission. Members of the Mercury 13 were present at Collins’ launch, thrilled to see their goal finally come to fruition. In the chapter, it details the breathless excitement these women felt: “And back at Cape Canaveral, Eileen Collins was sitting in the left seat – the driver’s seat – of the space shuttle Columbia. She was the commander. She was about to fly that shuttle … The eyes of the world were on her – the first woman ever to command a space shuttle.”
A Syracuse grad, Collins dreamed of flying since she was a child. After joining the USAF, she earned her pilot wings at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. She was the second female to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School located at Edwards Air Force Base in California, once the bastion of masculine test pilot bravado. In 1990, she was selected as part of NASA Group 13 (nicknamed “The Hairballs”) as the first woman pilot. Following astronaut training, she was assigned to pilot STS-63, which would rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir in February 1995 (in 1997, she piloted STS-84, which also met up with Mir). Despite all of her firsts in military and space history, one glass ceiling remained to shatter: to fly as a shuttle commander.
On this day in July 1999, the world finally saw a “woman at the wheel,” but Collins’ first journey into space as a shuttle commander was not without its own struggles. In the 2000 book Disasters and Accidents in Spaceflight, written by David Shayler, the gripping launch was recounted: “Just five seconds after lift-off a voltage drop was recorded in one of the vehicle’s electrical circuits. This resulted in the shut down of one of two redundant main engine controllers – one that served two of the three main engines … Then, nearing the peak of the ascent, the MECO command occurred seconds before it was programmed, due to lack of fuel being fed to the engines.” These issues were later traced to faulty wiring and a hydrogen leak.
Despite being left seven miles lower than its planned orbit, Collins successfully maneuvered Columbia into its desired orbit using its Orbital Maneuvering System. However, Shayler’s wrote, “It was not until the results of the investigation were released that the seriousness of the situation became evident and it was appreciated how close Collins had come to being forced to attempt the first, very risky Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort.”
With the launch and subsequent maneuvers out of the way, STS-93 and its crew of five (also including astronauts Jerry Ashby, Steven Hawley, Cady Coleman, and CNES/ESA astronaut Michel Tognini) successfully deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which is still in operation. Following her historic flight, Collins made one more excursion into orbit as commander. In 2005, she commanded STS-114 Discovery, the shuttle program’s second “return to flight” mission (in 2003, all shuttles were grounded after the STS-107 reentry accident). Collins became the first shuttle commander to perform a 360-degree pitch maneuver in space, while the crew on the International Space Station (ISS) observed the shuttle for tile damage that could have been incurred during launch.
While Collins retired from NASA in 2006, resonances were still felt in spaceflight thanks to her pioneering STS-93 flight. In 2007, astronaut Pam Melroy became the second woman to command a shuttle on STS-120 (Discovery). During that mission, Discovery docked with the ISS, which at the time housed Expedition 16’s crew, commanded by astronaut Peggy Whitson (who was the first female to lead an ISS increment). This occasion would mark the first time two female commanders of missions were in space together.
Thanks to pioneers such as Melroy, Whitson, and Collins (also, Sally Ride, who passed away two years ago today), young girls and women can freely dream of a career in space.