That's Madam Commander to you, Good Sir!

Today's post is extra special to me because my mom and sister got to meet a legendary American hero! Here's basically how our text conversation went down:

Mom: "Hey Hans, some astronaut is speaking at a women's event. Think your sister and I should go?"
Me: "Hmm depends, who's the astronaut?"
Mom: "Idk really, some lady named Eileen Collins..."
Me: "EILEEN COLLINS? EILEEN freaking COLLINS? That's not just some astronaut, that's the first ever female Space Shuttle commander!! You have to go!"

Welp, here you have it - my mom and sister with Commander Collins in San Antonio, and me stuck in New York wishing I could've been there :(

I had no idea she lives in San Antonio (my hometown), but turns out she's a board member of USAA!

Although NASA has sent up dozens of female astronauts since Sally Ride in 1983, there's an important distinction between the crew roles of the Shuttle era: commanders/pilots on one hand, and mission specialists on the other. During the early days of the space program, basically every astronaut was a military test pilot, all men. But as NASA missions shifted to be more science focused post-Apollo, there were more opportunities for women to get to space as mission specialists since that role drew from various scientific fields like medicine, engineering, and academia. But Shuttle commanders still needed military aviation experience, and thus remained exclusively male

Maj. Eileen Collins, Class 89-B of the USAF Test Pilot School

Knowing this, Collins joined the Air Force and got her break as 1 of the first 4 women chosen for pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma in 1978, where she earned her aviator wings and flew the T-38 Talon and the C-141 Starlifter. Then in 1989, Collins became only the second woman ever admitted to the elite USAF Test Pilot School, the same experimental aircraft program that graduated the likes of Gus Grissom and Buzz Aldrin. By the next year, NASA had come knocking; when she got the call from John Young, the commander of both Apollo 16 and the first Space Shuttle flight (STS-1) that she'd been chosen for NASA's 1990 astronaut class, she eagerly asked, "pilot or mission specialist?"

"Pilot," Young replied, "You will be the first woman pilot of the Space Shuttle"

Cue the Ariana Grande lyrics: "That's one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind"

Collins served as pilot (second in command) on her first two spaceflights: STS-63 and STS-84, both joint US-Russian missions in which Collins docked Space Shuttles Discovery and Atlantis with the Russian Mir space station in 1995 and 1997. By her third mission in 1999, she was ready to be named commander; who better to make the announcement on national TV than First Lady Hillary Clinton?

Commander Collins leading her crew to the launchpad for STS-114 on July 26, 2005

For this mission, Collins was given command of Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-93, tasked with deploying the Chandra X-ray Observatory into orbit where it remains to this day, capturing stunning X-ray images of the cosmos that would otherwise be absorbed by Earth's atmosphere (think of Chandra as the Hubble of X-rays). And finally, for her last spaceflight, Collins was given command of STS-114 in 2005, a measure of NASA's immense trust in her experience given this was the first flight after the 2003 Columbia disaster. True to form, she executed flawlessly

"To Hans: Aim High!" | I'll do my best, but I doubt I'll ever reach your heights...

After the luncheon, my mom and sister told me how impressed they were with Eileen Collins, not just by her amazing story and inspirational talk, but even more so by how down to earth and approachable she was with all the attendees. You'd never guess someone so unassuming was a trailblazer to the stars who went where no woman has gone before. She was even gracious enough to sign a printout of the Astronomical Returns About Me page! Your autograph means a lot to this crazed space nerd - now come visit New York so I can meet you too!


  1. Thats SO cool, and I'm so excited you got the autograph Hans!

    1. Mom and Dechi are so lucky they got to see her, I'm jealous haha