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Elmira native, astronaut to
be inducted into Hall of
Jill Michaels • July 18, 2009
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester, NY, USA
She has orbited Earth a total of 573 times at Mach 25. But she hasn't slowed down yet.
Former astronaut Eileen Collins, an Elmira native, will be inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame tonight.
She will be one of four pilots honored during a black-tie gala in Dayton, Ohio, the city hailed as the birthplace of aviation. The 48th annual Enshrinement Dinner and Ceremony is considered America's "Oscar Night of Aviation." The other inductees are former Cessna CEO Russell W. Meyer Jr., the late actor Jimmy Stewart (a World War II bomber pilot) and Apollo 1 astronaut Ed White.
The ceremony takes place two days before the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Collins, the first female pilot and commander of a space shuttle, will be joining the likes of Wernher von Braun, Chuck Yeager and Amelia Earhart in the Hall of Fame.
"I am extremely honored," said Collins, who retired from NASA in 2006. "I'm flattered. More important, I'm humbled."
Collins was interviewed by phone from Houston, Texas, where she lives with her husband Pat Youngs, and their two children, a daughter, 13, and a son, 8.
The Hall of Fame honor, which recognizes Americans who have "significantly contributed to advancements in air and space flight," is considered a prestigious accomplishment.
Elmira roots
As a child, Collins' love of flying was nurtured at the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport and the neighboring glider field at Harris Hill. She would spend summer camp near Harris Hill, watching the gliders soar overhead. But her parents never had the money for flying lessons or even for a ride in an airplane. Collins' father later lived in Rochester and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He died in 2006. Her mother, Rose Marie Collins, died in 2005.
At age 16, Collins began saving her earnings from a part-time job at Pudgie's Pizza.
Three years later, she had saved $1,000 — enough for 40 hours of old-fashioned "air time." She earned her pilot license in a Cessna with A.J. Davis, her flight instructor and inspiration.
Collins left Elmira to join the Air Force in August 1978. That same year, she realized that NASA had started to select female astronauts. She gradually built up her aviation career, flying the T-38 and T-41 as an instructor pilot and the C-141 as both an instructor and commander.
In 1990, while Collins was attending the Air Force Test Pilot School, NASA selected her as an astronaut. She flew as the first female space shuttle pilot on STS-63 in 1995 and again on STS-84 in 1997. Two years later, she completed STS-93, her first mission as shuttle commander. Her final space flight was STS-114, NASA's high-profile return to flight after the Columbia disaster.
Charlie Precourt, Collins' commander on STS-84, will present her for enshrinement tonight in Dayton. Former astronaut Neil Armstrong will present White, and White's son and daughter will accept on their late father's behalf.
"One of the most notable things about Eileen," said Precourt by telephone from his office in Utah, "is that she's always wanted to be just a member of the team.
"She best represents the choice for the first woman selected as a shuttle pilot and commander. She handled that with great skill."
Making connections
Pittsford native Pam Melroy became NASA's second female shuttle commander in 2007. She has flown on three shuttle missions — all launched in the month of October.
Melroy said that she and Collins share career trajectories.
"She was immensely helpful to me personally," said Melroy, who graduated from Bishop Kearney High School. "Certainly, she is a friend. She was someone I could ask questions of — she gave wonderful advice about conducting interviews and handling a crew.
"I have enormous respect for her. She is very calm and very inspirational."
Due to NASA logistics, Collins and Melroy never flew together, either in space or even in a T-38, the astronaut training aircraft. However, shortly before Collins left NASA in May 2006, the three training schedulers — all female — plotted a four-hour, motion-based simulator run with all women, Melroy said.