So competent that Collins, who in 1995 became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, was recently named NASA's first female shuttle commander. In December she'll head up a five-person mission aboard the Columbia to launch the largest X-ray telescope ever flown into space—a counterpart to the orbiting Hubble. "This mission is just five days, but we have a big, heavy payload," says Collins, whose husband, Pat Youngs, a Delta Air Lines pilot, plans to watch the launch with the couple's 2-year-old daughter Bridget. Fellow commander Capt. Jim Weatherbee feels there's little chance of slipups. "She doesn't make a mistake," he says.
Growing up in Elmira, N.Y., the second of James and Rose Marie Collins's four children, Eileen always reached for the stars. "Eileen seemed to have a destiny," says her father, a postal worker. "She had a thirst for knowledge and an ambition even then." When Collins was 9, her Catholic parents separated (they never divorced), and money became scarce. "My dad was changing jobs, and my mom was trying to get a job, so we survived on food stamps for about six months," recalls Collins. It's a story she likes to tell student groups, hoping to inspire youngsters to follow their dreams. "Everybody has their own challenge," she says.
Collins's passion for flying took hold when she was just 7 and would spend hours gazing at gliders in the nearby National Soaring Museum. An average student in high school, she went on to study math and science at a local community college while working nights at a pizza parlor to save $1,000 for a private flying course. On her first solo flight, at age 20, "the door [of the plane] popped open," she recalls. "But I said to myself, 'I'm just going to keep going.' "
She did. On an Air Force ROTC scholarship, she earned degrees in math and economics from Syracuse University in 1978. (She later earned master's degrees from Stanford University and from Webster University in St. Louis.) Joining the Air Force full-time, Collins completed a year of pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where she was one of 4 women in a class of 320 men. Despite the tempting ratio, she didn't date the entire year. "I was not going to ruin my career by spending my time going to movies," she says.
Clearly that rule didn't apply four years later, when Collins met Youngs while both were working as flight instructors at Travis Air Force Base in California. They married in 1987. Three years later, Collins became the first woman selected by NASA for shuttle-pilot training. In 1995 she took the helm during the first U.S. rendezvous mission with the Russian space station Mir, taking with her a scarf that had belonged to Amelia Earhart and a diamond-and-sapphire ring—a gift from Pat.
Just weeks after her return to Earth, Collins discovered she was pregnant—and grounded for at least nine months. When she blasted off again at 4:08 a.m. on May 15 last year, on a mission to bring Linenger home from a tour on Mir, Bridget, then just 18 months old, slept through the launch. Collins hopes that her daughter can stay awake this time around. "We watch launches on TV and she shouts, 'That's where Mommy sits!' " she says. For her part, Collins looks forward to another chance to take in the view. "You can't capture the feeling on film," she says. "It's awesome looking out into space."
Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington