Her father wanted her to be an accountant. Her mother told her to be whatever she wanted to be.
Eileen Collins listened to her mother. She became the Air Force’s second woman test pilot and recently conquered another male bastion--space shuttle piloting.
Collins is the first woman to selected by NASA as a shuttle pilot. That makes her the first woman with the opportunity, if all goes well, to command a shuttle mission.
Being first, she says, is not what’s important.
“For me, the important thing is we’re going to have a second and a third and there are going to be more women and it’s not going to be a big deal anymore,” she says. “It’s not going to be different. It’s just going to be picking the best person for the job.”
The 34-year-old Air Force major just completed her one year of astronaut training and is waiting to be assigned to her first space flight.
Being the only woman among 41 shuttle pilots does not faze Collins. The 16 other female astronauts are mission specialists, a job that precludes piloting tasks.
“I’ve been in the Air Force 13 years and I’m used to being the only woman in the squadron,” she says.
“I appreciate the fact that I’m not singled out.”
Collins was drawn to space while growing up in Elmira, N.Y. Even though all the astronauts then were men, she figured women would travel in space one day.
She majored in math in college and joined the Air Force ROTC. She started taking flying classes at age 19 and paid for them by working odd jobs--pizza parlor, catalogue showroom, church, hospital.
“I wanted to go flying, which to me was the greatest thing,” she says.
She served as a T-38 instructor pilot, then as a C-141 aircraft commander and instructor pilot. She taught math and was a T-41 instructor pilot at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., for three years before entering the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
She was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1990 and graduated from test pilot school that same year.
Collins, who is married to a commercial airline pilot, expects to be joined by other female shuttle pilots as more women become test pilots. The Air Force recently accepted its third female test pilot. Five women have graduated as test pilots from the Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, and two more are enrolled.
Collins is confident that there will be plenty of firsts--and seconds and thirds--to go around.
“We haven’t had a woman on the moon yet,” she says, “or on Mars.”