Space shuttle gets first woman pilot

January 30, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Nineteen women have flown aboard U.S. spacecraft, starting with the celebrated Sally Ride in 1983.

But when Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins buckles herself into her seat aboard the space shuttle Discovery this week, she alone will realize the crowning achievement of female aviators.

Colonel Collins is a female spacecraft pilot, the world's first.

The women before her were astronauts, but they were passengers aboard their shuttles, there to conduct scientific experiments or operate payload equipment.

Colonel Collins is there to fly the shuttle.

As pilot, she ranks below the shuttle's commander, the person in charge of the 100-ton orbiter as it circles the Earth, re-enters the atmosphere and touches down on the runway at Kennedy Space Center. But Colonel Collins' achievement is being celebrated by female fliers like no other since the dawning of the space age.

When Discovery lifts off -- launch is scheduled at 12:48 a.m. Thursday -- Colonel Collins will be carrying with her a scarf worn by pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart and an international pilot's license signed by Orville Wright for famed flier Evelyn "Bobbi" Trout in 1924.

She also will carry with her the admiration of the handful of female pilots who tried more than 30 years ago to prove they had the right stuff.

Mary "Wally" Funk, Jerrie Cobb and 11 other women made up the "Mercury 13," a group of top female fliers chosen for a short-lived astronaut-selection program in 1961, the same year the first of the all-male "Mercury 7" flew in space.

Last year, most of them gathered to meet and honor Colonel Collins as she was training to become the world's first female spacecraft pilot.

"You couldn't quit crying," Ms. Funk said last week, recalling the meeting. "All Jerrie could say was, 'My heart will be with you.' That's all any of us could say."

To witness Discovery's launch, nine of the Mercury 13 will make their first group visit this week to Kennedy Space Center, the place from which each once aspired to sail into space.

That dream now rests with Colonel Collins.

"We were the guinea pigs," Ms. Funk said. "Eileen will be doing what we wanted to do."

At the center of all the acclaim is Colonel Collins, who comes from New York state, where high school classmates thought she would make a fine teacher.

In fact, for nieces, nephews, Scouts and schoolchildren across the country, Colonel Collins, 38, has been an enthusiastic teacher.

"If you didn't know that she was a shuttle pilot, you wouldn't know it from meeting her," said her husband, Pat Youngs, an airline pilot who met Colonel Collins when both were flying military transports in the early 1980s.

Mr. Youngs, Ms. Funk, family members and other admirers say Colonel Collins does not present herself as a heroine.

"She's not tough as nails," said writer Carol Osborne, TC biographer of the nation's earliest female pilots. "This woman is so down to earth and as sweet as they come."

Ms. Osborne helped provide Colonel Collins with Amelia Earhart's scarf and Bobbi Trout's license.

Ms. Trout, 89, wanted to be in Florida this week to watch Colonel Collins' launch, but a back injury will keep her at home in California, where she plans to watch on television.

"I think women pilots have finally made it," she said. "I'm very proud of her."

Colonel Collins will also take with her into space insignia wings worn by the nonmilitary female pilots who delivered warplanes to airfields during World War II. And she will carry a lapel pin from Ninety-Nines Inc., International Women Pilots, an association founded by Ms. Earhart.

For now, Colonel Collins doesn't place herself among such pioneers.

"Someday, when I get old, I'll think about it," she said.

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