Eileen Collins

On what’s ailing NASA.

Evan Smith: Your application to become an astronaut was approved all the way back in 1990. How hard is it going to be to leave?

Eileen Collins: I’ve spent sixteen years in a wonderful series of jobs—my four space missions and the support jobs I’ve done before and in between. The people [at NASA] are very intelligent and dedicated, and they’re passionate about the space program. It’s going to be hard to leave this. So your next question is probably, “Why are you leaving?”

ES: As a matter of fact, yes.

EC: I do love it, but I have a responsibility to my family. This job is a lifestyle. It’s your life. And I need a little bit of downtime to spend with my family and to straighten out my home life—meaning, you know, I need to get the house painted. I need to get the lawn worked on.

ES: There are people you can pay to do that.

EC: I’ve been paying people to do that since my daughter was born ten and a half years ago, but at some point you need to intervene. I have memorabilia from my space missions—things that I’ve collected for years—and I want to organize it all. When Hurricane Rita went through [Houston] last September, that was a factor in my decision too, because we had damage to our home. It’s nothing compared to New Orleans, but it was enough for me to realize how vulnerable we are in this area. So I have work to do, not only to protect my house but to get things out of there that I don’t want to lose.

ES: Makes sense.

EC: But the main reason that I’m leaving the astronaut office is that I’m not going to fly again.

ES: Your choice or theirs?

EC: It’s because of the nature of the remainder of the shuttle program. We will have sixteen more flights before the end of this decade, and at that point we’re going to shut down the program. We have almost fifty astronauts who have not even flown one. Why would I fly a fifth flight when we have many astronauts waiting for their first?

ES: Extremely unselfish of you, Colonel.

EC: Well, I don’t believe the management at NASA would assign an astronaut to a fifth flight. Now, if NASA said, “We need you to fly another mission,” I would do it.

ES: Do you feel like you’re still able to fly?

EC: Oh, yes.

ES: Your skills are sharp. Your aptitudes are what they are, having experienced this four times. You know more than just about anybody over there how to do this.

EC: That’s exactly right. In fact, I did my last launch-and-ascent simulator about three or four weeks ago, and I felt just as sharp then as I did a year ago. But it’s time for me to move on. I’m going to be fifty in November. I don’t want to be too old when I go out looking for another job. And here’s another thing to look at: I think our country is better off if we have more people who have flown in space, even if there are people who have only flown once or twice.

ES: You mentioned sixteen more shuttle missions planned before the end of the decade. How can that be when you consider the number of problems that the program has had?

EC: Good question. That is the question. But that’s the president’s plan. Is it possible? Yes, it is certainly possible for us to fly four missions a year. Since the Columbia accident [in February 2003], our three orbiters, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, have been through an incredible amount of work. They’ve been upgraded and fixed, but frankly, they’re aging. And the things that we’ve had to do are change out wiring that has been frayed and flex hoses that have been frayed—the flex hoses carry the Freon and the water. Sections of the metal are corroding. There are cracks in various places. I’m making it sound pretty bad here … 

ES: It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

EC: Right. These are things we can’t fly with. So we inspect the orbiters, and we won’t fly them unless those things are fixed. By the time Discovery flew our mission last summer, it was in great shape. But it takes a lot of work, and it’s expensive to keep old flying machines flying. That’s why we’re going to stop flying the shuttle program—because of the expense involved. By the way, the space shuttles were designed for 10 years or 100 missions per shuttle, whichever occurs first. We haven’t flown anywhere close to that rate. You know, each shuttle has flown maybe on the average of 20 or 25 missions, but they have flown for 25 years. The shuttles have flown well beyond what they were originally built for.

ES: That can’t be good.

EC: But we know it. And when the Columbia accident happened, the president said, “Hey, we’re going to have to stop flying the shuttle eventually and move on to something else,” which is why, right now, we’re looking at winding down the program.

ES: So why fly sixteen more flights? Why not stop now?

EC: Our original intent was to build the [International] Space Station and to complete our commitments to our international partners. We’re going to try to do that.

ES: Four missions a year seems like a lot. Has there ever been a time when NASA flew that many missions in a year?

EC: Yes. In fact, back in 1985, we flew nine missions. In the early nineties we flew seven or eight missions a year for a couple of years there.

ES: That’s a long time ago.

EC: Yes, it was. And the shuttles were younger.

ES: NASA’s in a pretty bad place now, isn’t it?

EC: Despite the problems we have, I would say the agency is very well run and very lean, and for the

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