More superwomen needed in space

2010-10-12 11:46

With her arms flung out wide and body suspended high above Earth, anyone would be mistaken for thinking she was Superwoman.

And even though 54-year-old Eileen Collins may have had a window separating her and Earth, she achieved superhero status for becoming the first female pilot and first female commander of a space-shuttle back in the 90s.

“You can be a wife and a mother as well as do great things like fly a space-shuttle,” Collins said at an IBM press briefing in Johannesburg this week.

“My first child was born between my first and second shuttle trips in 1995 and 1997. My second child was born between my third and fourth shuttle trips in 1999 and 2005. It’s possible.”

“All the opportunities are there for women to become astronauts,” she said.

Collins is one of only three women who have been space-shuttle pilots, two of whom were also commanders.

She first flew the space-shuttle as a pilot in 1995 aboard STS-63, which involved a rendezvous between Discovery and the Russian space station Mir.

She then became the first female commander of a US spacecraft with Shuttle mission STS-93, launched in July 1999, which deployed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Collins also commanded a “return to flight” mission to test safety improvements and resupply the International Space Station in July 2005.

“Nasa is always looking for women with a broad cross-section of skills to join their crew. The problem is that women aren’t choosing to go into this field,” Collins said.

Collins said many young women felt that science was too hard or that they were too bad at maths to follow a career in space.

“I wasn’t very good at maths but I did a bridging course in it and eventually loved the subject, going on to major in it at university.”

As for travelling in space, Collins described it as literally an out-of-world experience.

“Spaceflight is wonderful. Words cannot describe how spectacular it is.”

“One of my most memorable moments was still on the first shuttle flight I piloted in 1995... It was pretty dark outside and the sun was slowly starting to come up... I looked outside and saw the Earth’s curvature and a band of colours. My first thought was: Oh my gosh! The Earth is actually round! You don’t believe until you see it in front of you.”

If it wasn’t for the side-effects, Collins said, space would be the ideal place for old people to live as the lack of gravity would allow them to do everything they could not do on Earth.

The only problem was that they would have trouble coming back “as the re-entry is difficult on the body and they probably wouldn’t survive,” she said.

“It is something we could perhaps look at in the future though.”

Another future possibility for Collins would be flying to Mars, that is, if she had a spacecraft with an unlimited fuel source at her disposal.

“I would love to travel there. It’s the most like Earth... it’s intriguing.”

Collins said the possible resources that could be found on Mars were unimaginable. “All that is stopping us is the expense.”

The future and wellbeing of the planet would definitely require some form of space travel as it provided humans with the bigger picture, she said.

“The future of the planet has to do with getting off of it and looking at it from a different perspective. Once you have been in space, your attitude on the world changes. You realise you are living on this small ball going around the sun, with a very thin atmosphere, surrounded by and exposed to this overwhelming blackness,” she said.

“You learn that humans are all in it together. You learn a lot of things about yourself and others.”

Collins, now retired, planned to speak at a yearly IBM event tomorrow about some of the life lessons she had learnt.

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