A hydrogen fuel leak, which could have caused an engine shutdown, costly delays on the launching pad, and a year of technical difficulties didn’t stop the successful launch of the $1.5 billion Chandra X-Ray Observatory on the Space Shuttle Columbia. Nor did it stop Eileen Collins, 42, from becoming NASA’s first female commander ever after 95 missions.
Collins, who has logged over 5,000 hours of airtime in thirty types of aircraft and 537 of those hours in space, served as pilot in her last two missions in 1995 and 1997, and felt well prepared to handle anything. So, when a short circuit occurred, as Commander, Collins braced for every possible emergency, even landing in Africa, something that has never before been attempted. The circuit cut the main computers for two of the main engines, but backups quickly responded.
In 1995 Collins was a member of operation Spacehab, the first flight of the Russian-American Space Program, which included the deployment and retrieval of a satellite and a space walk. The 3.8 million mile 1997 mission on Atlantis was NASA’s sixth rendezvous and docking with the Mir Space Station. Her most recent mission this July on Columbia, deployed the heaviest payload ever launched on the shuttle, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The observatory will gather information from X-rays of gaseous clouds so vast that it takes light more than five million years to go from one side to the other. Although nothing can escape the gravity of a black hole, the observatory is able to study particles up the last millisecond before they are sucked inside. In addition, it can travel to heights over 200 times those of the Hubble Space Telescope, or about one-third the distance to the Moon.
Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, called both to congratulate Collins, and to warn her about the “hoopla” and media hype that surrounds breakthroughs in the gender barrier. Ride recalled responding to a reporter’s inquiry about whether she would wear a bra in space, by saying “There is no sag in zero-g.” However, Mir record holder for longest time in space, Shannon Lucid, also cautioned Collins. And while Collins insists she has taken their advice, less than a month after her flight she had already given 47 television interviews and requests are still coming. She told an Associated Press reporter that she has tried to smile and put a different spin on the same questions, but there is not much getting around Columbia’s leak of over 2,500 pounds of hydrogen during the 8 ½-minute climb to orbit, which caused the engines to shut down one second early leaving the shuttle seven miles short of its orbital mark. “Hey we pulled it off. We did it,” she kept telling herself and her crew. Although Collins is back to work having missed a vacation due to flight delays, writing reports until 2:30 a.m. and waking again at 5:45 a.m., she is eager to vacation with her husband and 3 ½-year-old daughter Bridget, preferably to a beach.