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In Columbus, Former Astronaut Talks About Leadership And Space Flight

May 24, 2017

The Society of American Military Engineers continues its annual Joint Engineer Training Conference today in Columbus.

The three-day expo has more than 70 education sessions for engineers and affiliates in the industry. The conference featured two keynote speakers, including a renowned astronaut. As Mike Foley reports, Eileen Collins talked about her time in space and leadership.

NASA selected Eileen Collins for the space program in 1990, and she became an astronaut in July of 91. Collins became the first female Shuttle pilot during Discovery’s 1995 mission. She served as a pilot again for Shuttle Atlantis in 1997. Two years later, she became the first female Shuttle commander during Columbia’s mission. Her final journey into space came in 2005 as commander on Discovery. That mission, often referred to as Return to Flight, marked the first space trip since Columbia broke apart on February 1, 2003 as it returned to Earth. Collins recalls watching NASA TV with her young son on that day. She knew something was wrong when the crew stopped answering the radio calls from Mission Control.       

“I started changing channels and found a station showing burning debris across the sky. Seven astronauts gone, and our Space Shuttle Columbia gone. How could that have happened? That day, NASA put together an accident board. The physical cause of the accident was the presence of a hole, about four to six inches underneath the left wing where the crew couldn’t see it, so nobody knew that damage was there.”

A piece of foam had fallen off the fuel tank during the launch and struck the wing. Beyond the physical cause, another finding in the accident report struck Collins especially hard. Investigators cited a broken safety culture at NASA. But in the two-and-a-half-year span between the Columbia disaster and her final shuttle mission, Collins learned lessons of leadership, beginning with being an active listener.

“After the accident, one of our managers changed the way he held meetings, because the accident board blamed a silent safety culture that sat along the wall in meetings and wouldn’t speak up. This manager said if you’re coming into my meeting, you have to say something. And when the meeting is over, if I haven’t heard from you I’m going to call on you because you are important – whether you’ve been here for one month or ten years, you are important.”

Collins explained that experts can still learn, and that just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen. She continued with humility and creativity as the other lessons learned, as she recounted an exchange at one of the NASA safety meetings.

“This young engineer presented his idea and said, why don’t you do a 360 pitch around, expose the shuttle’s bottom side to the crew on the space station? They can take digital phots and downlink those and we can see if there’s any damage. Somebody said, you can’t do that because there’s a flight rule that says the astronauts can’t lose sight of the target. And then they started saying we can rewrite the flight rule. But I sat there going that’s a great idea, why didn’t I think of that? So we, along with the rendezvous section, developed a procedure and every flight since then used this maneuver called the rpm rendezvous pitch-around maneuver.”

Collins shared video and photographs from her final mission. She joked that the best training for being a shuttle commander is to be a parent. Things have definitely changed since that 2005 mission. The shuttle program ended in 2011. The International Space Station has doubled in size. And then there’s space tourism, which Collins thinks will be successful. 

“Having been up there, the human side of being in microgravity as well as looking back at the earth is just…one of the greatest things to do is to put your face against the window and stretch out your arms while you’re looking down at the planet and you feel like a Greek god flying over the planet.  A lot of people think that the astronaut program is over, but it’s not. The space shuttle stopped flying six years ago, but now our astronauts go to Russia. They train in Russia and they launch on the Soyuz, and they return on the Soyuz while the United States builds the replacement for the shuttle.”  

Collins says NASA has a plan to land people on Mars in 2033. The biggest limits according to Collins, the expense and keeping people alive once they get there.