Eileen was born on November 19, 1956 into a family of Irish immigrants in Elmira, New York. From an early age, Eileen marveled at the wonder of flight. Her fondest childhood memories were visiting the Harris Hill Soaring Corporation and Museum and standing around the local airport with her parents to watch planes take off. This, naturally, sparked a desire to take flying lessons, so she took a part-time job at a pizza parlor to save up $1,000 for private lessons. By the age of nineteen, Collins entered the cockpit for the first time and knew instantly that she would be a pilot.
After high school, Collins attended Corning Community College. With determination and her family’s support, she quickly earned an associate degree in mathematics and a two-year ROTC scholarship at Syracuse University. As expected, Collins graduated from Syracuse in 1978 with a bachelor of arts in mathematics and economics and a commission as an U.S. Air Force lieutenant.
Eileen entered the Air Force just as the doors started opening for women pilots. She set her sights on attending undergraduate pilot training school at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma where she was among the first group of 120 females to apply—and one of only four women selected. Within a year, the 23-year-old lieutenant became the U.S. Air Force’s first female flight instructor. In 1983, Collins was reassigned to Travis Air Force Base in California, where she flew C-141 cargo planes and participated in numerous military and humanitarian missions overseas. Several years later, Collins taught mathematics at the U.S. Air Force Academy after earning master’s degrees in operations research from Stanford University and in space systems management from Webster University.
With two advanced degrees, over 1500 hours of flight time, and a cool-headed reputation, Collins was the second woman ever accepted to the prestigious Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Upon graduation in 1990, NASA selected her for the astronaut program. At NASA, she famously became the first woman astronaut to both pilot (1995) and then command (1999) a Space Shuttle mission. Under her command, the shuttle Columbiamade history when it deployed a $1.5 billion telescope into orbit to enable deep-space exploration of exploding stars, quasars, and black holes.
Eileen Collins is an indisputable pioneer in the world of aviation—well in the company of others like Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride. She retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2005 at the rank of Colonel, ending a remarkable military career. Her list of honors and awards is long and befitting of one of our nation’s first female pilots and astronauts. The main boulevard entrance to Syracuse Hancock International Airport proudly enjoys her name. So too does the astronomical observatory at Corning Community College. Collins is also a Syracuse University Arents Award recipient, an inductee of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and recognized by Encyclopedia Britannica as one of the top 300 women in history to have changed the world.
Eileen Collins is an alumnus of Syracuse University and a veteran of the U.S. military. You should know her story.