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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

NASA's First Female Shuttle Commander Retires from Spaceflight

NASA astronaut veteran Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command a U.S. spacecraft, is hanging up her orbital wings to pursue more terrestrial exploits, the spaceflight veteran said Monday.

“It has been wonderful,” Collins told SPACE.com of her shuttle flight career. “The number one thing for me now is to spend time with my family.”

Collins, 49, commanded NASA’s first shuttle mission – STS-114 aboard Discovery – since the 2003 Columbia disaster, and is a veteran of four orbiter flights throughout a nearly 16-year astronaut career.

"Eileen Collins is a living, breathing example of the best that our nation has to offer," said NASA chief Michael Griffin, in a statement. "She is, of course, a brave, superb pilot and a magnificent crew commander.”

But the experienced shuttle astronaut will not plunge into a post-spaceflight career immediately. Collins said she’s reserved the entire upcoming summer to spend with her husband, Pat Youngs, daughter Bridget, 10, and son Luke, 5.

“They’ve put up with all of my training schedules and then I was gone for five weeks over last summer,” Collins said of her family, citing the three weeks of quarantine and two weeks in space during her last mission, not to mention the many national and international appearances that followed her return. “Now that it’s been eight or nine months, I’m just going to chill out and finish the remaining work to be done from STS-114, then it’s on to something new.”

Collins said she hopes her retirement will also allow newer astronauts an opportunity to fly before the shuttle fleet itself retires in 2010. Though a native of Elmira, New York, Collins said she will remain in Houston, Texas – home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center – for the time being.

“It’s important to me that these young people get a chance to fly,” Collins said. “It’s very important to the country to have more people that have flown in space because we take that spaceflight experience with us, which is a valuable thing to have when you go on to design future spacecraft and educate young people.”

Collins is a graduate of Syracuse University, where she studied mathematics and economics, and received two master degrees from Stanford University and Webster University, respectively. She completed her U.S. Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training at Oklahoma’s Vance Air Force Base in 1979 and was teaching serving as a mathematics and flight instructor at Edwards Air Force Base when selected as an astronaut.

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