Colonel Eileen M. Collins is the first woman space shuttle pilot and the first woman shuttle commander. Collins was born in Elmira, New York, in 1956. Inspired by the exploits of Amelia Earhart and the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, she earned her pilot's license while attending Syracuse University. She graduated in 1978 with a degree in mathematics and economics and entered US Air Force pilot training at Vance AFB, Oklahoma. Having become one of the first women to go straight from college to pilot training, she immediately set her sights on astronaut wings. After 3 years as one of the Air Force's first female flight instructors, Collins was moved from the Northrop T-38 Talon to Travis Air Force Base, California, to become a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter aircraft commander and instructor pilot.
She held this position from 1982 to 1985 and then spent the following year earning a master's degree from Stanford University in operations research. In 1986, she was an assistant professor of mathematics at the US Air Force Academy and a Cessna T-41 Mescalero instructor pilot. In 1989, she was selected to attend the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California. In 1990, she became only the second woman to graduate from the test pilot curriculum. While still attending Test Pilot School, NASA selected her in 1990 for their astronaut program. Collins became an astronaut in 1991 and served in orbiter engineering support while awaiting her first space flight.
She then became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, in this case the Space Shuttle Discovery, in 1995. Mission STS-63 was the first flight of the new joint Russian-American space program and included the first rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station; operation of SPACEHAB, a pressurized research laboratory; the deployment and retrieval of a satellite; and a space walk. After taking time off in 1996 to give birth to her daughter, Collins piloted the Atlantis in 1997. During mission STS-84, the crew conducted the sixth docking with Mir and transferred nearly four tons of supplies and equipment. Collins' third space flight in 1999 marked her advancement to Shuttle Commander, when she led mission STS-93 aboard the Columbia. Prior to the Columbia accident in February, Collins had been slated to command STS-114/Utilization and Logistics Flight (ULF-1) aboard the Atlantis. Among her many awards, Collins has received the Defense Superior Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, French Legion of Honor, and the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal. She has also logged almost 5,000 hours in 30 different types of aircraft, and over 537 hours in space.
On 22 July 1999, while commanding Space Shuttle Columbia, Colonel Eileen Collins and her crew had to overcome a serious engine controller malfunction and premature main engine cutoff, which left them 7 miles short of their target altitude. After correcting the problem, they accomplished their primary mission, the deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The telescope, designed to conduct comprehensive studies of the universe, has enabled scientists to study exotic phenomena such as exploding stars, quasars, and black holes.