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Holland Symposium: “Shoot for the Stars”

September 23, 2015

For a former astronaut, Col. Eileen Collins is down to Earth.

The featured speaker for Angelo State’s E. James Holland University Symposium on American Values, Collins was both the first woman to pilot and the first to command an American spacecraft. But she told an audience at the symposium barbecue that being a mother is often more challenging.

Col. Eileen CollinsCol. Eileen Collins“As a colonel, when I tell someone to do something, they do it,” she said. “As the mother of a14-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter, I think they don’t even hear me.”

The retired NASA astronaut and U.S. Air Force pilot brought that same humor to her “Space Exploration and American Values” symposium keynote address, sharing videos and anecdotes about her four missions for NASA, traveling by space shuttle to the International Space Station. She logged more than 872 hours in space as she and her crews delivered thousands of pounds of supplies – easy enough in the space station’s nearly weightless “micro gravity” – conducted spacewalks and operated robotic arms during maintenance and inspections of the space station and the shuttle.

“It takes about three hours to suit up for a spacewalk,” she said. “I told my crew, ‘You have six-and-a-half hours and you have to be back in time for dinner.’ They all called me Mom.”

Her first message of the symposium was that NASA and her own career illustrate the American values of freedom, individual rights and opportunity.

As a fourth-grader in Elmira, N.Y., she first decided she wanted to be an astronaut after reading an article in Scholastic Magazine about NASA’s Gemini program. But her parents could not afford to send their four children to college.

“I always loved math and science,” she said. “I think I took advantage of opportunities as they came along. I went to community college. I applied to ROTC, which paid for my two years at a university and gave me a guaranteed job.”

In 1978, she was accepted into the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training Program as one of the first women admitted during a trial period.

“My attitude was, I’m going to be the best pilot I can be,” Collins said. “I only had so many hours in the day. I spent them learning the procedures, training in the simulator.”

She became not only a pilot, but a pilot instructor for the Air Force and later was a faculty member at the Air Force Academy. She also was admitted to the Air Force Test Pilot School. But she never forgot her dream of being an astronaut. In 1990, during her year of test pilot training, Collins learned she had been selected for the space program.

“There were women mission specialists on space shuttles before me,” she said. “Sally Ride was the first woman astronaut in space. Kathy Sullivan was the first woman to spacewalk. It was a little bit easier for me to jump in because of the work the women before me had done.”

“We are a nation of explorers,” she added. “Shoot for what you want to do and what you’re passionate about. I loved flying and I loved the space program and exploration and I wanted to be part of that.”

NASA shut down the space shuttle program in 2011 and is focusing on deep space exploration, including a mission to send a crew to Mars by 2030. In the second part of her message, Collins called on the students in the audience not to forget the space program as they explore their career options and passions.

“NASA needs engineers and scientists,” she said, “for astrobiology, human biology, to improve battery technology, to develop closed-loop systems. Data is coming in from the Curiosity Rover on Mars and the Hubble Space Telescope. The Kepler space observatory has identified over 50 possibly Earth-like planets in our solar system.”

She reminded them that in 1961, then President John F. Kennedy called for the U.S. to put a man on the moon.

“We set that high goal and we didn’t shy away from that challenge,” she said. “The next goal is landing humans on Mars. We know it can be done.”

  • Retired astronaut and Air Force Col. Eileen Collins was the featured speaker at the 2015 Holland University Symposium on A...
    Retired astronaut and Air Force Col. Eileen Collins was the featured speaker at the 2015 Holland University Symposium on American Values. Photographer Danny Meyer

Space By the Numbers

2.5 miles – Height most humans can go before they need additional oxygen
7 miles – Height a commercial jet can travel
50 miles – At this height, the U.S. Air Force says you are in space
200-250 miles – Distance from Earth of the International Space Station
238,900 miles – Distance from Earth to the moon


Randy Hall, Holland Symposium Committee chair