Women astronauts inspire a new generation of women in space as they celebrate the U.S.'s first female shuttle commander. Photo courtesy of Patricia Ireland.
Thirty years to the day after Neil Armstrong made one small step for man, Eileen Collins was scheduled to make one giant leap for womankind. She was delayed. It wasn't the first time.
After several "scrubbed" attempts Collins finally ascended into the heavens on July 23 as the first female to command a shuttle mission, shattering a glass-ceiling that has kept women from sitting in the pilot's seat for 38 years. The crew of the space shuttle Columbia orbited in space for five days, returning to the earth after deploying the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a Hubble-class telescope estimated at $1.6 billion.
In an interview on NBC's Today Show, Collins acknowledged the pressures that came with being a pioneer female astronaut.
"I can admit this now that the flight is over," said Collins. "I think there was a little bit of extra pressure. And I think that just came from the fact that I knew that mostly other women were watching me. And they really wanted me to do well. And, of course I'm setting a precedent and I'm setting a standard, and I wanted to do a good job not just for myself, but to set a standard for other women to follow."
While Collins may be the first woman ever to be in charge of a space mission, she is only one in a long list of female astronauts. In fact, last winter NOW launched a campaign to send Jerrie Cobb, NASA's first female astronaut candidate, into space. Cobb was a part of Mercury 13, a group of accomplished women aviators who in the 1960s endured the lengthy testing and training process to become astronauts. The women passed the tests with flying colors, but at the last minute NASA pulled the plug on the project.
"Because of gender bias, the men at NASA didn't want to have women in space," said NOW Membership Vice President and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Johnson. "I still support Jerrie Cobb and her efforts to get into space. Thankfully Col. Collins came at a time when the military accepted women as pilots and provided them astronaut training."
Although women have made significant gains at NASA in the past 30 years, only one in five U.S. astronauts are women. Last year, women comprised only 17 percent of applicants to the astronaut program. On the day the Columbia shuttle was originally scheduled for launch, groups of women, including NOW President Patricia Ireland, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, her daughter Chelsea, and the U.S. women's soccer team, gathered at Cape Canaveral in support of Collins. The sentiments of "You go girl!" that were extended to Collins must be continued by encouraging young women to pursue careers in the sciences and aviation.
As Martha Ackmann, a women's studies professor at Mount Holyoke College wrote, "Women who struggle to open doors that have been closed to them know that the fight for equal rights takes many single steps, not a single small one."
To learn more about women in space, visit NASA's web site at www.nasa.gov and to read about NOW's campaign for Jerrie Cobb connect to www.now.org/nnt/winter-99/jerriecobb.html.