A Space Shuttle Astronaut Realizes Her Dream

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Fourth in a series commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.

The announcement that United States Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins would be the first female commander of a NASA space shuttle, made at a March 5, 1998, White House ceremony, was a milestone moment.

A former military instructor and test pilot, Collins had been fascinated by flying and space since childhood. At age 19 she used earnings from part-time jobs to pay for flying lessons. After college, she was one of four women admitted to Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training program at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma — where NASA’s first female astronauts happened to be doing their parachute training. That’s what awakened in her the possibility of space travel.

Just over a year after that White House announcement, Collins commanded a five-member crew on the STS-93 space flight from July 23-27, 1999. The highlight of that 1.8 million-mile flight was the deployment of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, to study phenomena such as exploding stars, quasars, and black holes.

In her remarks 22 years ago today, Collins talks about her early dreams of space flight and exploration, and she pays homage to all the trailblazing women who’ve “taken to the skies.”

First Woman Space Mission Commander 

By Eileen Collins

Roosevelt Room, The White House, Washington, D.C.

Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, and Administrator [Daniel] Goldin, I just can't tell you how much of an honor it is for me to be here today. And I'm just so excited about this opportunity that I have to command a space shuttle flight. And I want to tell you that since I was a child I've dreamed about space. I've admired pilots, astronauts, and I've admired explorers of all kinds. And it was only a dream of mine that I would someday be one of them and have these kinds of opportunities.

Throughout my life I've studied the universe that we live in and I've just been fascinated by astronomy and all kinds of science. And again, it was only a dream of mine that someday I'd have the opportunity to be part of such an important astronomy mission as this one, the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility. And throughout my life, and in particular in my career in the U.S. military and with NASA, I've been given important jobs and responsibilities, and I now accept this responsibility with all the determination and the motivation and the diligence that I've had in all the other challenges I've faced.

I also think it's important that I point out that I didn't get here alone. There are so many women throughout this century that have gone before me and have taken to the skies. From the first barnstormers through the women military Air Force service pilots from World War II, the Mercury women from back in the early 1960s that went through all the tough medical testing to become the first astronauts, to the first women who entered the Air Force and Navy military pilot training in the mid-1970s, and most important, the first women astronauts — and I'd like to point out Sally Ride, who is with us here today. All these women have been my role models and my inspiration and I couldn't be here today without them. And I'd like to say a special thank you to them.

And additionally, while I've got the podium, I'd like to in particular thank my family and my friends, especially my parents, who have been my best teachers and have been my mentors throughout my life. I'd like to recognize my husband, who is here with me today. Without him, without the unfailing support that he has provided tome, I couldn't be here today.

And now it's time to for us to focus on this mission. On STS-93, our crew will deploy the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility, or AXAF. As an amateur astronomer, I'm personally excited about the information this telescope will bring back to us. We'll learn more about the characteristics of individual stars, binary stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and quasars.

Since high-energy X-rays can penetrate through gas and dust, and detect objects that are 100 times fainter than the current X-ray satellite that we have in orbit right now, AXAF will teach us about the beginning, the evolution, the current structure, and possibly even the fate of the universe that we live in. And our crew is very excited about this mission.

But there's still much work left to be done between now and our December flight. There's training, testing, traveling, there will be flying and more simulators and constant practice. Today we're just getting started. Our crew will focus on this mission 100 percent, and we will make it one of NASA's greatest successes.

In conclusion, it's my hope that all children, boys and girls, will see this mission and be inspired to reach for their dreams, too, because dreams do come true.

Thank you. And now it is my honor to introduce to you the President of the United States.

Source: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 5, 1998.

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.

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