United States Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut Eileen Collins is the first woman to pilot and command a space shuttle mission. She launched her illustrious career under a glass ceiling, navigating destiny with focus and determination.
“I did not know what an engineer was when I was in high school,” said Collins. “Back in the 1970s, no one talked about engineering careers for women, and I didn’t hear about it for men either. So, I went to college as a math major because I liked problem-solving.”
During undergraduate school, she joined the Air Force to become a pilot around the time when the military started letting women learn how to fly.
“I was in the first class of women to go through pilot training at my base, and as you can imagine, there were a lot of distractions and side comments,” said Collins. “But I decided I’m just going to focus on being the best pilot I can be and block out distractions that are not contributing to the mission.”
While moving up the ranks, she earned a master’s degree in engineering and studied operations research. She went on to teach mathematics at the Air Force Academy. Though an arduous journey, her problem-solving skills guided her path.
“Don’t run away from problems. Don’t fear problems but see them as a challenge,” said Collins. “Identify the problem. If you don’t need to solve it immediately, put it aside, but write it down. Then start attacking that problem because there’s a solution — there’s a solution to everything.”
The Air Force taught Collins how to respond to emergency problems, a tactic she still uses in everyday life.
“People didn’t talk about anxiety while I was in school. Now, they’re willing to talk about what’s making them anxious or uncomfortable. Well, define the problem and then figure out a way to attack it,” said Collins. “I learned this by being an engineer and a pilot. We’re very structured in how we attack emergencies. The first thing you do is maintain aircraft control. Second, analyze the situation and act. And third, land as soon as conditions permit. I memorized that as a pilot and still use it today because life is constantly throwing things at me.”
Know your systems to be the best
Collins was always studious and had a strong desire to master her field. She advises young professionals to follow suit.
“Be the best engineer you can be,” she said. “Know your project, know your system, and study what’s going on in the world that interacts with, affects, or is affected by your system. So, when a problem or an unexpected event happens, you’re the hero who can come in with the answer, suggestion, or solution. That’s the kind of person I try to be.”
Collins felt this way about the space shuttle when she first became an astronaut. She studied constantly, wanting to know everything she possibly could in her head.
“Nowadays, engineers can look just up about anything. But if something breaks and you’re in mission control or up in the space shuttle, you don’t want everybody pulling out the manual or Googling something. You want to have that information in your head because you, as a human, can apply that information to the problem,” she said.
Collins recalls when she was a spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) in mission control, and a shuttle couldn’t close its payload doors to begin its return flight. The flight director kept asking the mechanical, maintenance, arm, and crew systems (MMACS) officer what the problem was and to give him solution options. MMACS kept telling the crew to stand by as he figured out what was happening.
“As a CAPCOM, my job was to talk to the crew. I remember sitting there that day thinking I wish I’d studied more on how the payload doors work — everything down to the tiny little micro switches — because I wanted to be the one to come up with the answer. Well, MMACS finally did. It wasn’t life-threatening, but the flight director kept asking, ‘MMACS, I need answers. Give me answers.’ You can imagine the tension and anxiety going through the roof,” said Collins. “I remember that because I felt like I had failed. I hadn’t studied that one system enough and wanted to contribute to solving the problem.”
Though Collins always wanted to be the one with the right answer, she emphasized that mission control is a team effort because no one can be an expert in every system. Teams with diverse backgrounds can brainstorm together and come up with ideas to find a solution.
“Getting the right people on the mission is first and foremost. And then you want to be fair,” she said. “My attitude is you want your crew to be happy. And the first way to make them happy is to ensure they have what they need to accomplish the mission.”
Embracing technological change and managing risk
As a new generation enters the workforce and more industries embrace AI, Collins encourages people to be open-minded to stay competitive while keeping humans responsible for critical decision-making.
“I see change as the second derivative. It is happening faster and faster all the time,” she said. “I entered the workforce in 1978 and thought things were changing fast back then. But no, it’s going at warp speed right now.”
Nonetheless, there’s still a distinct line between the decision-makers and the tools or models used to make decisions.
“Back in the space shuttle program, you always had little pieces of stuff falling off the launch vehicle,” said Collins. “We had a model called Crater that would predict how much damage would result from these pieces that fell off every launch. Well, the model was not very reliable because it hadn’t been around for very long. It was a good model; there just wasn’t a lot of real-world data in it. But that model was used to make a critical decision, and we ended up having an accident and losing seven crew members on the Columbia in 2003.”
With advancing AI, systems need tons of reliable data for the models to work. Collins believes there should always be humans involved, overseeing such models’ decisions, ensuring the decision makes sense, fits the mission, and is safe.
“You can’t put the whole thing into AI and let it run the show,” she said. “We need to be careful about that. We always need to have humans at key points coming in with common sense and asking, ‘Is this the direction we really want to go?’”
Parenting from space
Collins has two children, now in their twenties. Her son is a senior in college and will graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, and her daughter works in the financial services industry.
“I’m very happy I had children. Some women think, ‘I’m going to go through my career, and I’m not having kids.’ But at my age, it’s important that we have families.”
In the Air Force, Collins couldn’t fly when she was pregnant. She admits that, depending on the career, bearing children can be an interruption.
“Like it or not, it affects our careers,” said Collins. “But I decided I wanted to have a family. I had my daughter between my first and second missions and my son between my third and fourth missions. It wasn’t easy, but I loved it. I used to tell people I got the two best jobs in the world — I’m an astronaut and a parent.”
Collins tells everyone in the workforce that they, too, can be successful in their careers and be good parents. She also acknowledges that parenting was the best training for her to become a shuttle commander.
“Women often ask me, ‘How did you have children and be an astronaut? How does that work?’ It’s a really good question, and it did work,” said Collins. “We had a nanny because I often had to work off hours. And my husband, who was an airline pilot, was gone a lot, but he was very supportive. Especially during my missions when I was up in space, he was a full-time dad. We were a team.”
Turning another page
After a lifetime of accolades, Collins retired from NASA and the Air Force and is now a speaker and author. She wrote Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars and is touring with book signings and interviews to share her story.
“There are things in there for everyone,” she said. “I’m hoping young people in high school and college read it. Even if they don’t want to become an astronaut or pilot or join the military or anything like that, I put a lot of advice in the book to help them decide what they want to do in life and how to handle tough situations.”
Collins continues encouraging young and seasoned professionals in any industry not to shy away from problems and not let problems invoke anxiety. She wants to inspire them to be knowledgeable on their own, stay open-minded, embrace change, and work toward solutions — on the job and in life.
Filed Under: Engineering Diversity & Inclusion