profile: astronaut Eileen Collins
In January 1995, after months of training, Eileen Collins and six other astronauts began final preparations for NASA mission STS-63: her first flight into space. Besides literally blasting through the glass ceiling, the flight would be only the second of the new joint American-Russian space effort. After lifting off from Florida at night, Eileen and Commander James Wetherbee steered Space Shuttle Columbia towards a rendezvous high above the earth with MIR – Russia’s orbiting space station. Like many astronauts, Collins says that first flight into space changed her fundamentally.
“Your desire to care about the planet changes when you go into orbit,” she explains. “You see how thin the atmosphere really is, and you see fires burning. You see land being cleared, erosion coming down rivers. You can see thunderstorms, sometimes you see clouds with lightning flashing. You can see the wakes of ships in the middle of the ocean. You can see hurricanes and volcanoes, and at night you can see the city lights – all the different manmade and natural phenomena on the planet. It changes the way you think about the earth and it also changes your perspective on life. After my first flight, I would say my stress level went down; I was more tolerant of people; I was more patient. I was more protective of the planet – it was just a good human experience for me to do that. When you look back, you see a round planet with an atmosphere that’s like the skin on an apple – it’s so thin, it’s a little bit scary. We are these tiny little dots living on the surface of this fragile ball.”
During the mission, Collins and the rest of the crew were kept busy with their various tasks, which including retrieving an astronomy satellite from orbit and flying close to the Russian space station. As she explains, it was the beginning of a carefully laid-out plan that changed the course of world history.
“There were three phases,” she says of the nascent US/Russia collaboration. “Americans and cosmonauts flying together, then building the space station and thirdly what we’re doing these days – operating the station. We’re in a really good place now with the Russians, and you never hear about it because it’s just a really positive story – you only ever hear about the problems! It’s amazing it even happened – thinking back to the vote in Congress in the mid-1990s, it was one vote in favour of building the station. One vote, out of 435 members of Congress. I think part of the reason it passed is because we knew we were co-operating with the Russians, and that was attractive.”
In a new world where the Cold War was still a very fresh memory, getting two former adversaries together for a joint project seems even smarter in hindsight. Collins cites the brevity of the 2007 invasion of Georgia, asking whether the situation would have escalated if the US and Russia hadn’t spent much of the previous decade working together on such a high stakes project together. She points out that ambitious future missions, like a return to the moon, will almost definitely involve working with international partners – and wonders whether that would include China, with whom NASA does not currently collaborate.
Back in 1995, with Collins in one of the front seats, Columbia was plunging back through the atmosphere at 18,000 miles per hour, heading for Kennedy Space Center in Florida. When returning to earth, the Shuttle was basically just a giant glider, dropping steeply downwards and landing at almost twice the speed of an airliner without any engine power. Approaching the runway at such high speeds, with no chance of a second attempt, is a testing time for the pilots, but on February 11 – after eight days in space – Eileen touched down safely on planet earth.