NASA astronaut veteran Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command a U.S. spacecraft, is hanging up her orbital wings to pursue more terrestrial exploits, the spaceflight veteran said Monday.
"It has been wonderful," Collins told SPACE.com of her shuttle flight career. "The number one thing for me now is to spend time with my family."
Collins, 49, commanded NASA's first shuttle mission - STS-114 aboard Discovery - since the 2003 Columbia disaster, and is a veteran of four orbiter flights throughout a nearly 16-year astronaut career.
"Eileen Collins is a living, breathing example of the best that our nation has to offer," said NASA chief Michael Griffin, in a statement. "She is, of course, a brave, superb pilot and a magnificent crew commander."
But the experienced shuttle astronaut will not plunge into a post-spaceflight career immediately. Collins said she's reserved the entire upcoming summer to spend with her husband, Pat Youngs, daughter Bridget, 10, and son Luke, 5.
"They've put up with all of my training schedules and then I was gone for five weeks over last summer," Collins said of her family, citing the three weeks of quarantine and two weeks in space during her last mission, not to mention the many national and international appearances that followed her return. "Now that it's been eight or nine months, I'm just going to chill out and finish the remaining work to be done from STS-114, then it's on to something new."
Collins said she hopes her retirement will also allow newer astronauts an opportunity to fly before the shuttle fleet itself retires in 2010. Though a native of Elmira, New York, Collins said she will remain in Houston, Texas - home to NASA's Johnson Space Center - for the time being.
"It's important to me that these young people get a chance to fly," Collins said. "It's very important to the country to have more people that have flown in space because we take that spaceflight experience with us, which is a valuable thing to have when you go on to design future spacecraft and educate young people."
Collins is a graduate of Syracuse University, where she studied mathematics and economics, and received two master degrees from Stanford University and Webster University, respectively. She completed her U.S. Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training at Oklahoma's Vance Air Force Base in 1979 and was teaching serving as a mathematics and flight instructor at Edwards Air Force Base when selected as an astronaut.
NASA selected Collins to join the astronaut corps in 1990 and she completed her initial training one year later. But her interest in spaceflight took root much earlier.
"When I was in fourth grade, I read this article on the Gemini program," Collins said, adding that it was a Junior Scholastic story on whether the country should invest in space or not. "I'm nine years old and I'm thinking, 'Why would anybody say no?' Of course we need to go out in space."
Collins became NASA's first female shuttle pilot in 1995 during the space agency's STS-63 mission aboard Discovery, the first to the Russian space station Mir. She also served as pilot during NASA's STS-84 Atlantis flight to the Mir station in 1997, before becoming NASA's first female shuttle commander in 1999 when she led the Columbia orbiter's STS-93 mission that launched the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
The shuttle veteran retired from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of colonel in 2005 and has logged more than 872 hours in space during her four flights.
Collins said she's felt the importance of her shuttle firsts when speaking with young women outside of NASA who are eager to learn how they can become astronauts as well.
"So there has been an impact and I hope that it's been a positive one," Collins said. "I hope that if I'm going to be a role model that I can be a good role model."
At the astronaut level, however, the differences between male and female astronauts stem only from their work capabilities, she added.
"Within the job itself, the male-female commander, the male-female astronaut, it's really the same," Collins said. "What really matters is how the person does their job."
Returning to flight
As commander of the Discovery orbiter during the July-August 2005 flight of STS-114, Collins led her six fellow crewmates on NASA's first shuttle flight since the 2003 loss of the Columbia orbiter and its crew.
"My crew trained for four years for that mission," Collins said, adding that initial delays and then the Columbia accident pushed her mission to its July 26, 2005 launch.
The risk-filled mission tested a series of shuttle safety improvements, inspection tools and fuel tank modifications, as well as restocked the International Space Station with vital supplies. Collins has said in the past that she was surprised of the fuel tank foam loss seen during the launch of her last flight, especially since NASA had spent more than two years working to prevent such debris after a similar problem led to the Columbia accident.
The space agency has since taken steps to further reduce foam launch debris for its second return to flight mission, STS-121 aboard Discovery to launch in July.
"I'm expecting a very successful mission on STS-121," Collins said.
Collins' STS-114 spaceflight also marked the beginning of the end for NASA's shuttle program, which is now set to retire in 2010 after up to 17 more flights to finish ISS construction and service the Hubble Space Telescope.
"That's the right thing to do," Collins said of the shuttle program's retirement. "The shuttle is getting old, but we still have a capability to use it to finish building the space station. And we've got a good plan to gradually phase out the shuttle and bring in the Crew Exploration Vehicle."
Collins said the CEV is particularly exciting, because NASA hopes to use the spacecraft not only to return astronauts to the Moon, but also push towards Mars in the future.
"I am very excited to getting someday some people to walk on Mars," Collins said, adding that she hopes the U.S. takes the lead in that exploration effort. "Maybe I have a gene for this, but it's the right thing to do."
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