Women’s History Month: Air Force Training Helps Collins Command Space Shuttle

Astronaut and Air Force Col. Eileen Collins conducts a press conference prior to her space flight mission as the first woman space shuttle commander, in 1999.

Astronaut and Air Force Col. Eileen Collins conducts a press conference prior to her space flight mission as the first woman space shuttle commander, in 1999.

In honor of Women’s History Month, this #TBT kicks it back to July 13, 1999, and an article from my interview as a military journalist with retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, a pioneer in American aviation and space exploration.

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas (1999) — This summer, Col. Eileen Collins will become the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. It’s a job she’s worked toward for more than 20 years. Along with Columbia’s payload and crew, Collins is taking Air Force training to space.

The colonel got started at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., in 1978 as one the first women to go through undergraduate pilot training there. As a new lieutenant, she was inspired to become an astronaut after seeing the first shuttle astronauts — including the first female astronaut candidates — go through parachute training at the small Midwestern base.

In 12 months, Collins was a pilot, and in 12 years, she was an astronaut pilot. Since her selection to 1990’s astronaut class, she has piloted two shuttle missions for NASA. She will command shuttle mission STS-93 July 20, to place the X-ray observatory Chandra in orbit.

Commander and pilot preparations include flying NASA T-38 aircraft or a Gulfstream II shuttle simulator, which is a commercial jet modified to perform and fly like the space shuttle. Collins and Navy Capt. Jeff Ashby, STS-93 pilot, practice landing at White Sands, N.M., or Kennedy Space Center, Fla., every week. That training is important because the shuttle has “the glide path of a rock” on re-entry, Collins said.

“It’s a glider, in the sense that it doesn’t have any engines in the landing phase,” she said, but added that the space shuttle drops out of the sky at a much faster descent rate and at a higher glide angle than typical gliders.

“Our lift-to-drag ratio is on the order of 4- or 5-to-1, where, for example, the T-38 is on the order of 9- or 10-to-1, and a true glider could be on the order of 40-to-1 or more.”

Besides the shuttle’s unique approach, there’s also the challenge of a night landing — Collins’ first. And this shuttle will be heavier, and thus faster, than normal, because of the mission’s payload.

Because there is so much at stake, Collins said each shuttle pilot must fly at least 1,000 approaches and landings in the trainer before flying as shuttle mission commander. Collins and Ashby will also be able to practice the landing on orbit, with a special simulator stick connected to a laptop computer called “Pilot.”

In addition to flying more than 1,000 simulated shuttle landings, Collins has logged more than 5,000 flying hours in more than 30 different aircraft — including two flights in the space shuttle — and has knowledge far beyond what she had flying T-37s and T-38s at Vance. Nonetheless, she said she still uses much of what she first learned in undergraduate pilot training and as a first-assignment instructor pilot.

“What a pilot learns in the early stages of his flying training stays with him throughout his career,” she said. “In military pilot training, the intensity and the stress of it — there is stress there — is forcing you to learn. And the repetition is very, very important.”

Collins said the skills learned through that repetition almost become second nature, and stay with a pilot the rest of his or her career.

“When I fly the T-38 here at NASA, I still remember all the little formulas and all the little, neat tricks that my instructors taught me,” she said. “I taught those same things to my students, and I still use them today.”

The former first-assignment instructor pilot added that skills like how to use a checklist and the control-and-performance concept of how to do a cross check even apply to aircraft like the space shuttle.

Being shuttle commander involves much more than piloting the orbiter, however. To train for its mission, the entire crew employs the crew-resource management training Collins first learned working with a crew of up to seven people as a C-141 commander and instructor pilot at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., from 1983 to 1985.

“As a commander, I’m big on crew resource management — the way the crew (members) communicate with each other,” she said. “Every person has a job, they do their job, but they need to be aware of what the other crew members are doing, and they need to communicate well.”

Lt. Col. Catherine Coleman, an Air Force polymer chemist and NASA mission specialist on the flight, said she appreciates Collins’ approach.

“I like the way she works with people, the way she thinks about … what kind of help they need, what kind of help they don’t need,” said Coleman. “I just enjoy the way she manages the flight.”

“You need to learn how to work with people and use people to get the mission done effectively,” Collins said of her time commanding heavy-aircraft. “I think all of that experience has really helped me with this job here.”

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays — and here, and article — from PR, business and life, which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

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