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!”
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.”