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Collins urges women to enter astronaut program

April 4th, 2007 11:45 pm by JAMES BROOKS

JOHNSON CITY - Col. Eileen Collins came to East Tennessee State University's Nicks Distinguished Lecture Series Wednesday with a mission.

She wants to encourage other women to enter the National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronaut program and to follow her in space.

"Other women come up to me and say they want to be astronauts, but where are they?" she asked rhetorically. "Right now there is only one other woman pilot in training with NASA."

What does it take? A bachelor's degree in mathematics, science or engineering at a minimum. A master's degree in one of these fields is preferred. If you just happen to also be a military test pilot that gives one a leg up.

Whoever steps up with the right stuff will not be flying the space shuttle. It is due to be phased out by 2010, after 26 years into a program that was designed for a 10-year life. The Orion Spacecraft, the next generation vehicle, is due to come online in 2015 and will be able to fly six astronauts to the space station or four astronauts to the moon to establish a permanent colony by 2020.

Considering that an astronaut's career in space flight and training usually spans 20 years, the next generation to go to the moon and perhaps beyond are in college right now.

"Between 2010 and 2015 we have an agreement with the Russians to continue work on the space station aboard Soyuz spacecraft," Collins said. "For now we will continue shuttle flights until the space station is completed."

In a field that is dominated by men, usually 85 percent male, Collins feels no problems in being a good fit with NASA. "You have to have a passion for the mission, and women fit very well. We encounter the same technical problems as anyone else, and engineering is a field that requires creativity."

On her past mission they had to work out ways to inspect and repair the space shuttle's heat shield. "Things went well due to a great team effort," she said.

Collins has married and had two children during her 20 years with NASA. She retired from NASA in January 2006, and from the Air Force a year earlier. She is a veteran of four space flights with more than 872 hours logged in space.

She commanded Discovery in July 2005, which was NASA's return to flight mission following the February 2003 loss of the Columbia. In July 1999, she commanded Columbia, the first woman to command a space flight. She was the first woman to pilot a space flight aboard Discovery in February 1995, and flew aboard Atlantis in May 1997.

Collins is recognized as one of America's most admired women, but says she finds the flexibility and energy to be both a mother and an astronaut, "because I wake up every morning knowing I have the two best jobs in the world, a parent and an astronaut."

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