Col. Eileen Collins’s 2016 Hall of Fame Speech

Eileen Collins. Photo: Margaret Purcell

Wow, that was amazing! Thank you Patricia and Judy Collins wherever you are. Oh my gosh! That was just beautiful, wonderful! I‘ve always wanted to be a singer, but I could not sing so—maybe in another life–I decided to go fly.

You know, this is really great– to be here…Before… I‘ll just make about five minutes of comments, but before I do that, I do want to recognize again President Bill Clinton.

He was the one who in 1993 signed the cooperative agreement with the Russians, which got the U.S. and Russia working together in the space program and many, many cosmonauts have flown on the space shuttle. In exchange, American astronauts flew on the Russian Space Station Mir, which allowed us to do long-duration flights at their space station before we built our own, International Space Station (ISS.) He was responsible for that.

That was a little bit controversial –that we were working with the former Soviet Union, which we actually were in a race with them to the moon back in the 1960s, and here we are, in the 1990s, and now we are cooperating with the Russians.

But it did work out and we are very, very good friends with the Russians now –at the engineers’ level –the flight controllers, the managers, the cosmonauts, the astronauts…. It’s been very successful. And now we are in the International Space Station.

But I do want to say….I‘ve got about five minutes, so I am going to talk fast.

I remember my uncle, Jim O’Hara. He was a writer. He had a bear in one hand and a cigarette in the other hand and he would be going like this, and he would talk, talk, talk… He had the gift of gab…And my mother had that also…

But I want to say a few things about my Irish heritage and then a few things about the space program.

So I am very, very proud of my Irish heritage and I am very lucky to be part of the Irish culture and I considered [us] the big Irish family.

So my ancestors came to America in the mid-1800s. The Collins family settled in Richboro, Pennsylvania. They were farmers. And on my mother’s side, the O’ Haras, they were mostly railroad people.

My grandfather, Jim O’ Hara, was a manager at the area Lackawanna station in Elmira, New York.

So I grew up in Elmira, New York. And why does that matter?

Well, Elmira is nearby Harris Hill, known as the “soaring capital” of America.

At one time, it was the soaring capital of the world but that went to, I think, somewhere in Europe. So now we are the soaring capital of America and the site of the National Soaring Museum. So when I was a child, my dad would take us to the airport or the gliderport. We‘d sit on the hood of the car and we would watch these gliders take off. And even at summer camp and all through the summer I watched these gliders fly overhead and I thought , ‘I ‘d really like to do that someday.’

I remember my mother taking us to the library. That is how she ‘d get rid of us, you know– four kids, dumped them off at the library and she ‘d go do her shopping, but at the library, I found the section on flying and I found everything I could find on flight— the theory of flight, the history of flight, women in aviation, military pilots…They all inspired me to eventually join the military. And by chance, my timing worked out. So the year that I graduated from Syracuse University, which was 1978, was the first year that the Airforce took women into pilot training.

I reported to Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, and I was a member of the first class to take women for pilot training at that base. And there were only four of us—four women– and there were 280 male pilots and over 100 instructors. So everybody knew who we were and they knew what kind of grades we’re getting and what we are doing…

Well, I‘ll say that it was a test program and it was very successful. They continued the program and now women are pretty much integrated into flying in the Navy, in the Air Force, and in the Army.

So there are so many stories I could write a book….I don’t have time, but I just want to share one story with you because I‘d like to tell something funny…

So the women were walking around the base with our green flight suits and we looked very out of place, you know—there is a woman in a flight suit… And when they heard us talking on the radio people were, ‘Ah, there is a woman’s voice on the radio!’ That was very unusual.

So the first time I flew with Fort Worth Center—Fort Worth Center –I was in formation. We fly “lead” and a wingman—both the lead and the wing talk on the radio. So when the Fort Wort Center flight controller or air traffic controller, heard my voice, he called my lead and said, “Vance 21 flight. Is your wingman a wingwoman? Or is his seatbelt just too tight?”

So I learned to have a sense of humor and I never got upset about those things. I just kind of laughed…. And anyway, so I flew in the Air Force for 12 years….It was wonderful, I absolutely loved the years that I did that. I met my husband Pat who is here with us today. He has just been great and very supportive throughout my career.

But I started at NASA in 1990—twelve years after … I don’t want to say actually left the Airforce, but the Airforce assigned me to NASA, so I left active air force flying and now I am going to someday fly a space shuttle… And I felt like I was leaving the best job in the world for the future best job in the world because all I wanted to do when I was young was go further and faster and higher.

So I just want to say a few things about how—what it is like to be in space because my Pat always tells me, ‘Just tell them what it is like to be in the space and how much fun it is up there….’

Well, we work very, very hard and the fun usually comes at the end of the mission but the things I remember that are so wonderful about human spaceflight and why I think that space will be…There ‘ll be a tourism in space someday. It is going to be very successful. We got to get the cost down and we‘ve got to make it safer but that‘ll eventually happen with time…

So being in space you are floating in zero G. It is like learning how to roller skate for the first time but it is a very wonderful, effortless feeling. Looking back at the Earth from space, you can put your face right up against the window and stretch out your arms and you feel like you are a Greek God flying over the planet, very cool.

And the other thing is the feeling of success and teamwork that you get when you fly a successful mission.

So I want to tell you a little bit about how my perspective of the Earth changed because I used to be very focused on myself and I was all about, you know, ‘Am I doing a right thing, do I look right…’

We have…We live on a ball. Think about the fact that we live on a ball that is spinning…. And the space station, by the way, and the space shuttle is only 200 miles above the surface. So if you could imagine yourself driving 200 miles down the road, take that distance and go up with it, that is only how high the space station is above the surface. It is not that far. If you drove straight there, it would take maybe three hours.

So the breathable air goes up to 2-3 miles, airplane flies 6-7 miles… If you are an Airforce pilot, you become an astronaut if you go to 50 miles but the space station is at 200 miles.

The Earth atmosphere is like an apple skin on apple– that is how thin it is when you look back.

The other thing about being in space is the orbit.

We go around the Earth once every 90 minutes, so that converts to…. If you project it on the surface,18,500 miles/hour so you are falling as you fall over the….

We have the low Earth orbit. So if this is the Earth, we are going around like this—every 90 minutes. We go in and out of the shuttle—so the sun is shining on the Earth….Well, you get the sunset and then 45 minutes later sunrise; 45 minutes later sunset , 45 minutes later sunrise…So you don’t have normal nighttime up there like here on Earth you sleep when it is dark usually. You get constant Sun coming in and out of the windows every 45 minutes. It kind of messes with your circadian rhythm…

But… It is so very different being in space, but someday… Now, we are in lower Earth orbit. If you could fly straight there, you might get there in 3 hours but if you are going to go to the Moon, it takes 3 days. If you are going to go to Mars, it takes 6 months if the planets are on the same side of the Sun.

If planets are on the different sides of the Sun, it takes two years.

But we want to go to Mars someday.

And I ‘ll talk about that later but you might ask the question, “ So why are we flying in space? What does that do for us?”

Well, if you look at the history of the space program, spaceflight leads to invention, it leads to discoveries… It is exploration and it is adventure.

So we are adventuring into a new world.

So, as Patricia has mentioned, if we think about the Irish people and even my ancestors who crossed the ocean so long ago coming to a new world … And you think how much courage that took… It took courage for them to leave their homes and their families, first of all. It took courage to get in a boat and go across an ocean. And it took courage to set up a new home in a place where you maybe not even going to be accepted –where you’re going.

So I believe that the Irish people, particularly Irish Americans, are people of adventure. And I believe that our Irish ancestors have something in common with the space program and that’s the sense of adventure. So there is a need to explore, a need to learn new things, a need to do new things…

And this is the hope of our space program and it is the premise of our space program.

So someday, people will leave planet Earth to explore new worlds… It will be under different circumstances, obviously, than the ocean travelers but there will be many similarities because there are new worlds to discover, new technologies, new materials and maybe even new life.

Most of you know about the Kepler Satellite. So the Kepler Satellite was launched by NASA several years ago. The only purpose is to discover Earth-like planets in other parts of our Galaxy. So today Kepler Satellite has identified 4,600 candidate planets, and of those, 1040 are confirmed to be planets like Earth in the habitable zone of their stars.

So I remember as a kid they told me there are nine planets, and now we teach our kids that there is over 1000 and the number changes all the time—it keeps going up.

Kepler has only looked at the tiny bit of the sky in the Galaxy. So if you extrapolate what we have found to the entire galaxy, they are predicting there is over 11 billion Earth-like planets. That doesn’t even include the large ones!

Someday, I believe, people will figure out a way to travel to these places and it won’t be in my lifetime. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I was born too soon.

But finally, I‘d just like to say it is really an honor to be here.

My congratulations go to the other honorees. It is wonderful to meet you all and to be here with you. I want to thank Patricia again and all those who went through a lot of hard work to put this together …And again, I am very proud to be Irish. God bless you all! ♦


For more on Eileen Collins, read Irish America’s April / May profile here

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