Eileen Collins is about to become the first woman in 37 years of U.S. spaceflight to command a mission.
President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will announce the decision in a White House ceremony today.
The 41-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel already is the nation’s first female space shuttle pilot, but that’s the second-in-command job during a mission, behind the commander.
Ever since Collins returned from her second shuttle mission last May, space buffs have wondered when she would be assigned the top flying job.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Clinton had nothing to do with Collins’ promotion and that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration alone made the decision, but the president wants to make the announcement.
“There will be good news for all of those who are supportive of our efforts in space and who believe it should be a gender-neutral zone,” McCurry said.
Reluctant to upstage the president, NASA declined to say Wednesday which flight Collins will command. The most likely choices are a telescope-delivery mission later this year, possibly in December, or a station-assembly flight scheduled for December.
Collins was not in her office at Johnson Space Center in Houston on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
In 1990, Collins graduated as the Air Force’s second female test pilot and also became the first woman chosen by NASA as a shuttle pilot. Dozens of female airplane pilots gathered at Cape Canaveral when she rocketed into orbit aboard the Discovery shuttle in 1995.
“I’m often asked why we haven’t had a woman pilot before now,” Collins said in 1995, “and mainly the reason is we haven’t had women who have had the credentials to apply to the astronaut program and compete right up there with the men.”
Only one other woman, U.S. astronaut Susan Still, has flown as a space shuttle pilot.
And only one other woman has piloted a spaceship: Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who flew solo for three days in 1963 as the first woman in space.