‘Trying to Do Her Job’: 20 Years Since the First Female Shuttle Commander Was Assigned

Eileen Collins was the first woman to make the cut as a Space Shuttle pilot and eventually the first female to command a crew of astronauts into orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

Twenty years ago, this week, First Lady Hillary Clinton—flanked by President Bill Clinton to her left and NASA Administrator Dan Goldin to her right—took the podium in the Roosevelt Room at the White House to make a quite remarkable announcement. It was 5 March 1998, the first week of Women’s History Month, and veteran astronaut Eileen Collins had just been named not only as the first woman in history to command the Space Shuttle, but also the first to lead a crew of astronauts into orbit. Blazing a trail begun by Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, more than three decades earlier, Collins had already flown two shuttle missions as a pilot and would go on to command the first flight after the Columbia disaster. Hers was another annal in the story of women’s achievements in the high frontier of space.

“One big step forward for women,” said Mrs. Clinton, drawing on Neil Armstrong’s oft-repeated historic words, “and one giant leap for humanity.” Noting that the announcement was being made at the dawn of Women’s History Month—which runs throughout March—she reflected on her own letter to NASA, as a 14-year-old girl, asking about the qualifications and experience needed to become an astronaut. Back then, in the early 1960s, she received “a really thin envelope” in response from the space agency, which was “never a good sign”, advising her that women were not then being considered for positions on the United States’ first piloted space missions. “Well,” breathed Mrs. Clinton, to a mixture of stifled groans and chuckles from her audience, “times have certainly changed!”

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton applaud Eileen Collins in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on 5 March 1998, after announcing her selection as the first female Space Shuttle commander. Photo Credit: Houston Chronicle

Indeed they have. Some observers in the Roosevelt Room on that day, 20 years ago, reflected that it was rare (if not unprecedented) for a shuttle commander to be formally announced by the First Lady, from the White House. For Collins’ STS-93 crew—pilot Jeff Ashby and mission specialists Catherine “Cady” Coleman, Steve Hawley and France’s Michel Tognini—the attitude was quite different. For Coleman, the excitement was not about the historical significance, but about the impact that Collins would have on other little girls, growing up across America. For Tognini, a veteran French Air Force fighter pilot, it was a refreshing wind of change, whilst Ashby appreciated not being treated as STS-93’s only “rookie” crew member. And for Hawley the significance was even closer. A veteran astronaut for almost two decades, he had been on the selection panel in late 1989, which picked Collins for training. At that time, he knew that he had a hand in choosing the future first pilot and commander of the shuttle. “All of us that were part of that decision,” Hawley recalled, “take pleasure in seeing it happen.”

Selected by NASA for astronaut training in January 1990, Collins became the first woman to make the final cut as a shuttle pilot. Alongside U.S. Army aviator Nancy Sherlock (now Currie-Gregg) and Air Force test engineer Susan Helms, she became one of the first three active-duty military women chosen by the space agency. Yet Collins stood firmly on the shoulders of titans. The “Mercury 13”—aviators Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrle, Gene Nora Stumbough, Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan, Bernice Steadman and sisters Janet and Marion Dietrich—had undergone extensive evaluation at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., in early 1959, to assess their ability to undergo the same tests as the “Mercury Seven”.

Launch of STS-93. Photo: NASA

Although the Soviets flew Valentina Tereshkova aboard Vostok 6 in June 1963, they did so as a politically motivated endeavor and she was given limited command authority over her spacecraft during three days in space. Later, Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to record two space missions—and the first to perform an Extravehicular Activity (EVA)—but the Russians have since flown only two other female cosmonauts, Yelena Kondakova and Yelena Serova, who both participated in long-duration increments aboard Mir and the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA’s first class of female astronauts, including Sally Ride, was selected in January 1978 and over the following two decades some 25 American women performed long-duration missions and spacewalks, including the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Included in their number were the first active-duty female astronauts, the first African-American woman spacefarer and, only a few weeks before Collins was assigned to STS-93, the first Indian-born woman to fly into orbit.

Collins (back row, second left) is pictured aboard Russia’s Mir space station, during STS-84 in May 1997. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Yet for so many years, command eluded them. The task of breaking that “glass ceiling” fell to a woman who had grown up watching gliders soaring over her Elmira, N.Y., hometown. Only in her late teens had Collins earned enough money to pay for flying lessons. Beginning in gliders, she entered the Air Force in 1978, one of only four women chosen for pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla. Collins became an instructor pilot in the T-38 Talon, then flew Lockheed’s C-141 Starlifter. A year before her selection as an astronaut, she became the second woman in history to attend Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

By her own admission, Collins applied to NASA in both its pilot and mission specialist categories. “I think the reason NASA chose me as a pilot was due to all my flying experience,” she said. “Being chosen as a mission specialists would have been great, too. I would have had the opportunity to do spacewalks or work the robot arm. I would have learned more about the actual science of it. Both jobs really do have a lot to offer.” In February 1995, she piloted STS-63, a complex science mission which deployed and retrieved a Spartan solar physics satellite, saw a spacewalk performed and completed a rendezvous with Russia’s Mir space station. Two years later, in May 1997, Collins piloted STS-84, the sixth of nine shuttle flights to actually dock and exchange crew members aboard Mir.

Led by commander Eileen Collins, the STS-93 crew emerges into the glare of television lights on the night of 22 July 1999. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

At the time of her announcement to command STS-93 in March 1998, her third mission was slated to launch the following December, but was repeatedly delayed and eventually rose to orbit in July 1999. By that time, two others had been selected into NASA’s corps as shuttle pilots. In March 1995, Air Force test pilot Pam Melroy and Navy aviator Susan Still were chosen and although both went on to fly two missions apiece as pilots, only Melroy went on to command her own shuttle mission.

Since then, with the retirement of the shuttle, the distinction between “pilot” and “non-pilot” has blurred somewhat, although NASA’s most recent selections in 2013 and 2017 have featured a number of astronaut candidates with test-piloting credentials, including Marine Corps aviators Nicole Mann and Jasmin Moghbeli and Army aviator Anne McClain, the latter is slated to begin her first mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in November 2018. Moreover, the definition of “command” has similarly shifted away from the military exclusivity that it once enjoyed. In the fall of 2007, Peggy Whitson—a civilian biochemist—became the first woman to command a space station, when she helmed Expedition 16, and subsequently went on to become the first female to lead NASA’s astronaut corps. Last year, during Expeditions 50-52, she became the first woman to command two station missions and now holds the record for the most experienced female spacefarer.

STS-93’s crew in orbit. Clockwise from top: Steven Hawley, Jerry Ashby, Cady Coleman, Michel Tognini, and Commander Collins. Photo Credit: NASA

Whitson is now joined by Suni Williams in having commanded the ISS and is expected to be joined by Shannon Walker, tipped to lead Expedition 60 in early 2019. Each of those commands, and the records set by female astronauts and cosmonauts, are reflective of the importance of Women’s History Month. They also indicate, as Eileen Collins herself remarked, that none of these achievements can be won in a vacuum.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it weren’t for all the people who’ve gone before me and set the stage to bring women into aviation,” she explained before the STS-93 launch. “In the beginning of the century, it took a lot of courage to fly as a woman, when that really wasn’t a woman’s place. During World War II, there were the Women Air Force Service Pilots and the women who ferried aircraft. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, women competed to be astronauts. In the later 1960s, we started getting more women in the military. In the 1970s, women were offered the opportunity to fly in the military, active duty. That’s when I first became interested in flying. We had our first women selected as astronauts in 1978. Since then, we’ve had more and more women become astronauts.”


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8 comments to ‘Trying to Do Her Job’: 20 Years Since the First Female Shuttle Commander Was Assigned

  • James

    Keep and greatly expand the International Space Station. It could be quite useful for many decades.

    We can look forward to seeing the first female to command the International Moon Village and provide leadership in miniing Lunar resources to help reduce space exploration and exploitation risks and costs and to use our new ecologically sustainable Lunar resources derived pathway to enrich, empower, and improve the lives and security of all the folks on our Home Planet and eventually also on Ceres, 16 Psyche, 90482 Orcus, Deimos, Phobos, Mars, O’Neill Cylinders, and many hundreds of other places across our Solar System.


    “CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A new version of a space exploration roadmap that firmly puts the moon on the path to Mars will be one topic of discussion at a meeting of dozens of space agencies this weekend in Tokyo.

    The Second International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF2) will take place March 3 in Tokyo. About 45 countries and international organizations are expected to participate in the meeting, the first since the inaugural meeting in January 2014 in Washington.”

    From: ‘New exploration roadmap to be topic of space agencies meeting’ By Jeff Foust 3/2/2018
    At: http://spacenews.com/new-exploration-roadmap-to-be-topic-of-space-agencies-meeting/

    • James

      Note concerning The Global Exploration Roadmap:

      “A Shared Roadmap for Expanding Human Presence into the Solar System

      The International Space Station (ISS), continuously crewed since 2000, shows the benefits and potential of human activity in low Earth orbit. The ISS hosts ongoing scientific investigations sponsored by government and non-government entities. Through international collaboration, over 2,100 such activities have been implemented with more ongoing. The ISS is an invaluable long-duration flight analogue for future human deep space missions enabling research to address human health and performance risks as well as serving as a testbed for critical technologies. It is also used for educational and outreach activities, reaching millions of students and the interested public around the world each year. Lastly, the ISS is facilitating the economic development of low Earth orbit, which will remain an important destination for human activity and research in space.

      ISECG space agencies envision that by the mid 2020’s a Gateway in the lunar vicinity will
      open the space frontier for human exploration of the Moon, Mars and asteroids as we expand human exploration and commerce into deep space. The Gateway will support activities on and around the Moon while also serving as a technology and operations test-bed allowing human explorers to address the challenges and risks of deep space exploration and conduct scientific investigation of our Solar System. Utilising the Gateway with a partially reusuable lunar lander (under study by JAXA, ESA and Roscosmos), human missions to the lunar surface are envisioned. These missions will also advance some of the capabilities and technologies needed for the exploration of Mars. Astronauts can advance the preparatory work of robotic missions in assessing the potential for resources on the lunar surface and techniques for using them to make exploration sustainable.”

      From: ‘What is New in The Global Exploration Roadmap?’
      At: https://www.globalspaceexploration.org/wordpress/wp-content/isecg/GER_2018_small_mobile.pdf

    • se jones

      “We can look forward to seeing the first female to command the International Moon Village”

      And we were looking forward to never seeing a comment from you or Gary Church again.

      • James

        “And we were looking forward to never seeing a comment from you or Gary Church again.”

        Oh no! It cannot be allowed! The foul-mouthed, anti-nuclear power, and neo-luddite leader of the Mars Colonies Soon Cult, enabled by endless flights of fleets of the wonderfully ‘cheap’, profitable, and CIA insiders/deep state government folks/Air Force/NSA/NRO/DARPA’s beloved BFR antipodal bomber, is teeth grinding unhappy again!

        Maybe a few folks look forward to se jones ending his ongoing foolish attempts at bullying everyone into ignoring mining the resources of the Moon and his requiring endless praise and repeatedly bowing down to our taxpayer subsidized duel use antipodal bomber/passenger and AI killer robot carrying rocket called the BFR.

        Large Space Based Solar Power Satellites built with Lunar derived resources could help reduce the gross Home planet pollution that kills about 9 million people a year and costs $4.6 trillion annually.

        And the task of building such huge Solar Power Satellites might be accomplished with industrialized Moon based electromagnetic launcher systems. But what we really need instead are huge fleets of various types of BFRs that are based on the technology of the Nazi Silbervogel/Soviet Keldysh/West German Saenger spacecraft/Soviet Energia super-heavylifter/Soviet Buran/Russian American Space Shuttle and X-37B Space Plane.

        Perhaps with super efficient, high delta v, robust, and powerful nuclear powered spaceships, based in orbits around the Moon and fueled with Lunar derived thorium and uranium, perhaps Jeff Bezos built O’Neill Cylinders, and our Solar System’s 16 Psyche and the thousands of other asteroids and hundreds of dwarf planets and many dozens of moons will turn out to be far more useful and profitable than that costly, skunky and funky money burning pit called Mars.

        Yikes! Heresy! Ban from the Internet all nonbelievers in the wonderful fossil fuel powered, ozone layer destroying and grossly propellant inefficient BFR antipodal bombers flying often to the lovely Mars Colonies fantasyland!

        • James


          “More recently, the Soviet Energia super-heavylifter flew twice, in May 1987 and November 1988, delivering the Polyus orbital-weapons prototype and the unmanned Buran shuttle into space. Canceled in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, Energia carried the potential to boost 220,000 pounds (100,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit. At liftoff, Energia’s core and quartet of Zenit strap-on boosters could generate around 7.6 million pounds (3.4 million kg).”

          From: ‘Means and the Muscle: Where Does Falcon Heavy Stand Alongside the Heavylifters?’
          By Ben Evans 2/11/2018
          At: http://www.americaspace.com/2018/02/11/means-and-the-muscle-where-does-falcon-heavy-stand-alongside-the-heavylifters/comment-page-1/#comment-1907460

          Yep! Endlessly hound and banish all the 7.5 billion non-believers in the new and ever shiny BFR fleets of robotic gods that can carry diverse types of super nifty “orbital-weapons”! And tightly seal the accursed lips of the non-believers with extra-wide and super sticky graphene tape! Bind the arms and hands of all non-believers with graphene cords so they cannot post!

          We will need to build ASAP some large graphene based super prisons on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to hold all of the intolerable non-believers in hugely profitable fleets of ozone destroying, shiny, and glorious robotic BFR types of antipodal bomber war mongering LEO terror machines!

          Maybe we’ll even need to make lots of Internet crosses and nails to deal with all those 7.5 billion non-believers in the world having ‘cheap’ and frequently flown fleets of lovely BFR types of reusable and dual use antipodal bomber/passenger and AI killer robot carrying rockets!


  • Frank D

    An overall good article but tainted by misquoting Neil Armstrong. He did not say “and one giant leap for humanity.” He said “…one giant leap for mankind”

    • James

      Frank D –

      Yep, Neil Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

      You got me thinking about a copy of the Apollo 11 plague I kept for many decades.

      The Apollo 11 LM Descent Stage plaque Neil Armstrong uncovered had this inscriptionon on it, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

      However, doing space things “in peace for all mankind” seems to be going out of fashion right now with some folks.

      “‘I believe we’re going to be fighting from space in a matter of years,’ he said. ‘And we are the service that must lead joint war fighting in this new contested domain. This is what the nation demands.'”

      From: “Air Force Chief Goldfein: ‘We’ll be fighting from space in a matter of years’”
      By Sandra Erwin February 24, 2018
      At: http://spacenews.com/air-force-chief-goldfein-well-be-fighting-from-space-in-a-matter-of-years/

      The new Cold War II space fashion seems to be based on old Nazi reusable antipodal rocket bomber ideas and perhaps not human and American ideals.

      “Like his more familiar contemporary Wernher von Braun, Sänger worked on developing liquid propulsion for vehicles that could eventually send men into space, and though he never immigrated to the United States or became a key player in the early space age, his spacecraft did. Sänger is the father of the skip-glide vehicle, a concept both the United States and the Soviet Union hoped to turn into a manned precision bomber in the early days of the Cold War.”

      And, “Like von Braun, Sänger figured out fairly quickly that he would need military funding to get his skip-glide vehicle off the ground. After a brief stint with the Austrian Nazi party and the Austrian branch of the SS, Sänger pitched the idea of a weaponized skip-glide vehicle to the Austrian Army. By weaponizing his vehicle, it could deliver a bomb to a preselected precise point anywhere on Earth.”

      From: ‘Eugen Sänger: Germany’s Other Rocket Genius’ By Amy Shira Teitel June 10, 2014
      At: https://www.popsci.com/blog-network/vintage-space/eugen-s%C3%A4nger-germany%E2%80%99s-other-rocket-genius?dom=PSC&loc=recent&lnk=10&con=IMG

      Time will tell if our new and super high tech Cold War II with costly fleets of different types of reusable antipodal bombers based in various nervous nations will turn out well or quite badly for everyone.

      I would like to see lots of folks encourage our space leaders to invite everyone on Earth to participate and contribute one way or another to peacefully exploring, mining, and industrializing the Moon to enable the building of large Space Based Solar Power Satellites and the doing of other useful ‘hot war’ risk reducing and environment improving space projects for “all mankind”.

  • Frank D, many thanks for your comment. My article didn’t misquote Armstrong’s famous words. Rather, it directly quoted Mrs. Clinton, who paraphrased Armstrong in her words about Collins.

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