Interview With An Astronaut

The next space shuttle was scheduled to launch on March 1, and veteran astronaut Eileen Collins was slated to command that mission. But after last week's tragedy, all shuttle trips have been postponed indefinitely, jeopardizing the future plans of Collins, 46, and her crew.

COLLINS, WHO HAS been to space three times, became the first woman shuttle pilot in 1995 and the first female commander in 1999 (aboard the Columbia). For the past year, she had been training for STS-114, the March mission aboard the shuttle Atlantis. She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo about what the loss of Columbia and her colleagues means for her future. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Where were you when you heard the news?

Eileen Collins: I was home with my 2-year-old son. My husband and my daughter were camping. I woke my son up at 7:45 because I wanted him to watch the shuttle land with me so he would know what to expect when I made my landing next month.We were watching NASA TV and when I heard the radar--it's called C-band tracking-- was not picking up Columbia. That's when I realized there was really something wrong. I gave my 2-year-old some toys and sent him off.

How did you feel?

I'm still trying to find the right words. Maybe shock and disbelief? As a pilot, I'm thinking what caused this. And as a friend, I'm thinking about my fellow astronauts who were aboard the orbiters. And the next, is what can I do--I want to go help.

So the shuttles have been grounded indefinitely. What does the delay mean for your crew?

We don't know yet. What I plan on doing is keeping my crew ready for our mission because at some point, when the investigation starts, hopefully they'll find a cause and plan for a return to flight. When that time comes, my crew needs to be ready to fly. And I have no idea when that will be. So I have to make sure we're ready to go whenever, be it sooner or later.

But after the Challenger accident in 1986, the delay was nearly three years.

Until we find out what caused the Columbia accident, we can't say is it going to be one year, two years, six months. It's pure speculation right now. Our attitude is to stay ready. I'm going to try to keep my crew motivated. When the shuttle is ready to fly, we are ready to fly.

It sounds like no hesitation there.

Let me tell you, I've worked at NASA for 12 and a half years, and I just love the people that I work with. I trust them. We have some very talented and smart engineers. And the way we're set up is that astronauts--there's over a hundred of us--work throughout the organization. We work on shuttle program, payloads, future projects, you name it. Before I got assigned to this flight, I was an astronaut safety representative. I'm just so proud of our safety. We have people who ask tough questions and make tough decisions. No one expected this to happen to [shuttle mission STS-]107. It was just a huge shock.

When you became the first woman commander in 1999, that flight was on the Columbia. Was she a good ship?

The shuttles are all real similar. After I flew Columbia, it went down for over a year for a major modification. Columbia was completely inspected and received a wiring upgrade and a whole new avionics sweep. Basically, that's where the pilots in terface with the control system. Columbia had not yet been moded to dock with the space station. In fact, Columbia was supposed to fly next fall after a docking system had been added to dock with space.

How did it feel to become the first woman commander?

I was extremely happy after flying [the 1999] mission because we deployed an X-ray telescope. It was a highly successful flight. As far as being the first women commander, I was happy, whether it was me or somebody else. It was about time we had a woman commander.

Are you concerned that you will have to retire before flying again?

Those thoughts crossed my mind but I am committed to the mission. I've been training for a year. I couldn't walk away from it. We're going to fly this mission, even if it takes--I don't want to give you a time. As the commander of mission, I'm here to provide leadership.

As an astronaut, do you think about the possibility of dying?

We do think a lot about malfunctions that could happen in space or on reentry. We think about things that we have control over. Even while I'm out jogging, I run these scenarios through my mind. I think this or that malfunction or emergency is going to happen and this is what I'm going to do.

You don't prepare for death at all? Even Special Ops soldiers leave a power of attorney for their spouses.

Those kinds of things like having a will in place, those are things everybody should do. You could die in a car accident. I realize that something could happen I don't have control over, but you prepare yourself for things you do have control over. That's how you keep the confidence level up. For me, I think about how much I love to fly, and I really believe in the cause of the space program. That's why I'm here.

Do your kids come home with questions about the Columbia tragedy?

My 2-year-old, he doesn't understand it. But my 7-year-old, she asks questions, and I'm right upfront with her. I don't want her to be worrying about my flight. I already told her I would not fly if I knew there was going to be a problem. But I'm confident we're going to figure out what happened with 107. And I also tell her I love my job and my family comes first. So if I didn't think flying in space was safe, I wouldn't go.

Do you want your own daughter to become an astronaut?

I want my own daughter to do whatever she wants to do, I'm not going to try to talk her into anything.