Eileen Collins

On what’s ailing NASA.

July 2006By Comments

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 investment of each dollar, the taxpayers get a tremendous return. No organization is going to be perfect. Our culture needs work. It really does. But we talk about it. We hang it out. We let the world know we have problems and that we’re going to be working on them. If we tried to tell the world that everything is rosy …

ES: No one would believe it because all evidence is to the contrary.

EC: Right. We have no one but ourselves to blame for the Columbia accident.

ES: How many shuttle missions have there been this year?

EC: We have had none this year. We had one last year. We had none in ’04, and we had one in ’03.

ES: So we’re talking about two missions in the past three and a half years. How can you say that taxpayers are getting a tremendous return on their dollars invested in NASA?

EC: Well, what we’re trying to do now is build the Space Station. The purpose of the station is to do research on the human body living in space for long periods of time and to try to find ways that the body can safely adapt to space so, later, we can go to the moon and on to Mars.

ES: In view of all that’s happened since the Columbia accident, is it a good time or a bad time to be an astronaut?

EC: I would never say it’s a bad time. I would say some times are better than others. If you were an astronaut in the early nineties, you would fly maybe once every two or three years. If you’re an astronaut now, it could be eight or ten years before you fly a mission. To give you an example, on the mission that’s flying in July, there are two astronauts who were hired in 1996, and they’ll be flying for the first time. But they’ve been pretty busy in that ten years, because astronauts do a lot of things; we support other crews, we do Mission Control work, we work with engineers.

ES: It’s not like you’re just hanging out in the astronaut’s lounge, doing dopey stuff, if you’re between missions.

EC: Oh, no. The jobs here are very challenging and exciting. I don’t think I would trade the support jobs I’ve had for any other job that I could have had in that time period.

ES: Give me an example of a support job that you’ve enjoyed.

EC: One that comes to mind is the work I did at Kennedy Space Center. For about a year and a half, I was an astronaut support person. I would strap the crews in for launch. I’d go in and get them out of the orbiter after landing. I would get their space-walk suits tested and ready to go. I did emergency training. I’d go in the orbiter to do hydraulic tests. I’d go through a test plan; even though I wasn’t actually flying the orbiter, I could run test plans. I was busy. We would also visit different work areas—you know, “What do y’all do here in the tile shop?” And we’d meet the employees and do motivational visits.

ES: All the glory, we’ve been told for years, is in the missions. But you really seem to have enjoyed the behind-the-scenes stuff.

EC: Yeah, it’s like, you can be the star on stage for one play, and then, for the next, you’re putting on the makeup or doing the props. You appreciate the job more when you get to see it from different angles.

ES: Given what you’ve seen from those angles, would you feel safe on a shuttle right now?

EC: I feel it’s safe. Okay, I need to say that it is not 100-percent-sure-thing safe. Flying in space has risks.

ES: You mean now or always?

EC: Always.

ES: Even before Columbia, before Challenger, you always thought, “There’s risk”?

EC: I’ve always known that there’s risk in space flight. I applied to the space program in 1989, after the Challenger accident [in January 1986], knowing full well that another accident could happen someday. But I see how risks here at NASA are controlled. It’s not a perfect system. We list hazards, we have controls for those hazards, and we have to meet a certain level of reliability before we can safely launch a shuttle. The longer we fly the shuttle, the more we learn about it, so the more hazards we know of. It might seem as if it’s a little more risky because we know more, but on the other hand, we have more controls now than we did in the early days. For example, on my mission, for every little thing that we thought could go wrong, somebody was out there making sure there was a control on it. And the probability of that hazard happening was very, very low.

ES: So what happened on Columbia? Where were the controls?

EC: What happened on Columbia was, this 1.67-pound piece of foam fell off the external tank—this is like Styrofoam—and nobody thought that that piece of foam could put a hole in the wing. Even one of the engineers who I talked to after the accident said, “There is no way I believed that a piece of foam could damage this wing leading edge. I’ve never believed it.” No one thought it could happen until five months later, when the accident board actually fired a piece of foam at the wing leading edge and put a hole in it.

ES: Again, just to be sure, you’re comfortable enough with these sorts of unknowable things that if you were asked to go on a shuttle today, even with the troubles that have been made known to all of us in the past couple of years, you would get on—no problem.

EC: If they came down and said, “Eileen, one of the crew members is sick on this July flight and can’t fly. We need you to step in,” I would do it.

ES: You’d go. Does your family ever say to you, “Please don’t”?

EC: You know, they never have. My husband has never done that. Maybe he just wants to send me away.

ES: I can’t imagine that.

EC: I’m just kidding. But, you know, my husband’s a pilot.

ES: For Delta, right?

EC: Right now he’s a pilot for Delta, but we were pilots in the Air Force together. He understands the risks of flying, and he knows that this has been my life and my passion. After the Columbia accident, I had a long talk with him about what we were going to do next. I had to ask him, “Do you want me to leave?” Which I did not want to do. And he said, “It’s very much up to you. If you want to fly, I support that.”

ES: Wow.

EC: I knew my flight would be the safest shuttle flight that was ever going to fly. I felt that our community here—NASA, contractors, everybody—would be extremely careful about every modification, every decision. Plus, if I’d left, what kind of message would that have sent?

ES: All this stuff aside, what’s it like to be an astronaut? You’re one of a handful of people in the world who’ve done something that the majority of us will never get a chance to do.

EC: As you can imagine, it’s wonderful.

ES: I can imagine it’s scary. I can imagine a lot of things.

EC: It’s funny: I’ve never been scared on a shuttle mission. It’s just the nature of the job. You’re busy, you’re focused, you’re well trained, and you go, “You know, if I’m going to die, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

ES: You’ve never been scared?

EC: No! Not scared the way I am when I’m driving. Someone pulled out in front of me on February 9—the guy just pulled right out in front of me. I was scared to death. I said, “I’m going to hit this guy, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Ka-blam. I went right into his passenger door.

Here’s another one: I will not ride roller coasters because they frighten me. Last June I went with my daughter down to Schlitterbahn at South Padre, and we got all the way up to the top of this ride, the Tempest, and I said, “I’m not going down that thing—no way!” And my ten-year-old daughter was like, “Mommy, I did it! It’s not that bad!”

ES: And yet you’ll go into space.

EC: Well, yes, because in space you have control, for the most part, over what you’re doing. And, you know, because you’re so well trained, you have to get into the mind-set. I know the orbiter, the systems, how it flies, what the space environment is like. I’ve been doing this for more than fifteen years. I know it. I know the people who worked on the shuttle, I know the managers, I know the flight controllers, I know the people who do the training. That is a huge boost to your confidence. It’s what I do. And, on the other hand, not only am I going up for a ride, but I’m the commander. So I not only have to be confident myself, but I have to share that confidence with my crew. Do you see what I’m saying?

ES: Even if you are nervous, you can’t show it.

EC: Yeah. And I’ll tell you, since you asked the question, about one time, on my second mission, when I was frightened. I was asleep on the shuttle, and I heard this great big bang. “What in the world was that?” I reported it to [ground control], and nobody knew what it was—everything was fine. Something like that will get your attention.

ES: I suspect so!

EC: For the most part, you know, we fly launches over and over and over again in the simulator, so when you’re out there on the launchpad, your attitude is “Let’s go. Let’s get this thing off.” You’re pretty excited—the adrenaline’s going—so when you get up in space, it’s time to get to work, to get that flight plan out, to get that robot arm out, to get the space suits out.

ES: You’re distracted enough that you don’t think to yourself, “You know something? I’m in space.”

EC: Well, you do think that, for two reasons. One is microgravity: Floating around is just such a wonderful experience. The second thing is looking at the earth from space. When you get into orbit and you look back and see the blue colors of the ocean and the turquoise coral reefs, when you see the really bright deserts and places that you want to travel to someday, it’s beautiful.

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