Return To Flight

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2004 Preflight Interview: Eileen Collins
01.20.04
 
And the STS-114 interviews continue today with STS-114 Commander, Eileen Collins; Eileen, thanks for joining us today. It's been almost a year since the Columbia accident; a very trying and tribulating year for the nation and the space agency, as well as the entire human space flight community. If you could, for starters, discuss your feelings a little bit, one year after Columbia, and what the last year has meant to you in strengthening your rededication to flying this mission and getting Shuttles back into flight.

Well, clearly this past year has strengthened me as an individual as well as our whole space community, in my opinion. I've been strengthened personally and professionally. And really the year has given me time to step back and refocus and look at things from a different perspective and from a global point of view. I'd been so focused on my training for 114 prior to the Columbia accident. In the year since I've looked at the Columbia crew, their mission; I've looked at the space program in general, where we've been, where we're going, what our mission means to us as being the Return to Flight mission. I think our country has been strengthened by this also. For me personally, I've restrengthened my ties with my family and with my friends. Professionally, I've had time to look at the Shuttle program, technically learn more about the Shuttle, learn more about how I can even be a better crewmember, over this past year. The Shuttle being such a complicated system, you're never going to know everything about it, so we have had time, myself and my crew, to learn more and to learn more about the system that it operates in. And finally, to look at our organization and how NASA serves the country's space policy. And I think you just get strengthened by going through something like this. I see this process continuing out through the next year, up until we fly, and beyond.

STS-114 Commander Eileen Collins
STS-114 Commander Eileen Collins

You and your crew were just four weeks from launch when the accident occurred. Think back for a moment, Eileen, if you will, and think to that Saturday morning, how you found out about the loss of Columbia and its crew, and what it meant to you personally to emerge from those dark days and weeks after the accident to absorb this recovery process that NASA continues to be in and press ahead for this new STS-114 that you'll command.

Well, clearly, the last year has been very difficult, for myself, my family, for the NASA family, for the Shuttle program, for the Station program. As I said, we're just stronger coming out of this. But, the process that you go through ... now that I can look back at it, I can see clearly what has happened. You go through shock, initially, you go through grief, and then you go through this long process of, what happened, how did it happen, how could this have happened; you look at it from a technical point of view. And then you go through a recovery, a realization of what happened, and all this takes time. You keep going back into the other stages and you come out of them, and you just progress. And now, I believe that we are in a recovery stage, and we're thinking more and more -- although we're still thinking about our own crew every day -- we're more and more looking forward to how can we make this work for us, how can we make this tragedy make the space program better -- not the just Shuttle program but the space program and the future of our country in space. So, it's just a long process that we've been through, and I want to say that through it all, every day when I drive to work I see reminders of the Columbia crew; I have reminders at home, I have reminders in my office, and I want those reminders because while initially they were sad, they're not as sad anymore; I'd say they're more strengthening; they're making me want to make more of a commitment to the program and to continue their legacy and to continue their mission.

How have you, as an individual and as an astronaut, forget the commander part of this, changed as a result of the accident and its aftermath? Do you take less for granted about this program, maybe, if astronauts ever take anything for granted about the job that they are involved in?

Well, I think basically I'm the same person, but obviously I've changed -- you have to change going through a process like this. I know that I have matured, I've learned more about the Shuttle program and how the Shuttle flies and, and the environment that the Space Shuttle flies in. I think that I have had the time -- it's really having the time to look at myself and my mission and how we all fit in the space program and how we can do a better job. I think that had we flown our mission back in March of '03, where it was originally scheduled, I think we would have done a fine job. But I think now we're looking at it from a different perspective. And, I have been able to look at myself as an individual, how am I fitting in as the, as the Shuttle commander, how is my crew fitting in, are we responding to the needs. Obviously the technical job that we have is difficult but it's really easier compared to looking at how we fit in the big picture. We get so involved in our day-to-day job, and technically what we do. Every once in a while we've got to sit back and say, hey, how do we fit in the big picture? How do other people see us? Are we doing the right things to help the space program in general, and not just our mission? And, I've been able to just look at things from a different perspective. I'm still just as committed to 114 as I always have been, that we have a safe and successful mission, that my crew is trained and prepared, ready to fly. But I can't help but look at the 107 crew, as I see reminders of them, and how much they were committed to their mission, how much they loved their mission and each other, and how well they worked together as a team. They're role models for us, and we can learn from them, and again, as I mentioned before, just carry on their mission.

And, in terms of your mission, again, you were four weeks from launch; you were going to visit the International Space Station in what I've characterized as a sort of garden variety type of mission to deliver supplies and science gear and external outfitting and spacewalks, things that we had become accustomed to as far as Space Station visits. And now, there's a whole new complexion to this flight: not just that it's the first flight after Columbia, but you're doing so much on this flight that is testing ways of protecting orbiters and protecting crews in the future. Tell us a little bit about what this mission is really all about now -- is it a test flight more so than it is just a visit to the Space Station to deliver critical supplies?

I think of our flight, STS-114, in two major areas, two major objectives or goals, the first being the resupply and the servicing and the maintenance of the Space Station ... taking up the logistics that they need, fixing their gyroscope, adding a platform outside the Space Station with the spare parts, helping prepare the Station for future building. That was the original part of our mission. Now, the new part of our mission, which I see as the second and just as important objective, is the testing and the development of the new things that we'll be doing on the mission that come from the recommendations of the accident board. That involves two major subsets there -- the inspection of the exterior of the orbiter, to make sure that we're healthy to re-enter, and testing the methods for repairing a potential hole or crack or some kind of damage to the outside of the Shuttle. So the development is still going on for those objectives, and we don't know exactly what we're going to be doing in those areas yet but we've got some pretty good ideas right now of what kinds of inspection will we be doing, what kinds of repair will we be doing. So, our crew is involved in, in the first objective, in keeping our proficiency in the spacewalks, and the logistics, and the second objective, helping with the development, from a crewmember's point of view, of the operational side of these new objectives. So we've been pretty busy.

And in that regard, again, in terms of the mission, under the glare of the world's eyes who will be watching your flight, what kind of techniques would you employ as commander to try to keep your crew focused, keep them insulated, if you will, from all of the outside distractions that will inevitably accompany the final phase of training. Then, once on orbit, how do you keep them focused through that intense scrutiny and all of this imagery that you're going to have to provide and the Mission Management Team's evaluations and all of the, the things that will be ancillary to what you're doing up on orbit?

Well, let me say first of all that I have a fantastic crew. The seven Shuttle crewmembers have been so professional in the work that we have done up to this point. Four of us originally assigned to the flight and then the three that were added in October of '03 are learning how to work together right now as a team. And I can see that my crew has done their job well. And yet handling these, you want to say "outside distractions," -- I don't want to really see them as distractions. I would like to see them as part of our job. We need to think about how much time do we spend in each area. We want to be fair, but yet we want to realize that our crewmembers are the only ones that can actually do the hands-on activities. They can do the spacewalk, they can practice doing the repairs, they can fly the robot arm, make the docking, make the landing. We are the only people that can do that. Our country's relying on us to do these tasks and to do them, correctly and safely. So that's where we're focusing most of our time and energy. But on the other hand, people want to know what we're doing. I mean, we see ourselves as servants to, the American people and the international community. We are carrying out a space policy that is, frankly, extremely important to our country and we all know that. It's important for us to let people know what we're doing. So we're going to make sure that we do our job, first of all, and do it to the best of our ability, as safe and successful as we can, and at the same time, with a smaller amount of our time commitment, get the message out. So we're going to come up with techniques to do that. We'll have certain times during the mission where we do, for example, a press conference, calls to the ground. We will be thinking about the Columbia crew and things that we can do in remembrance of them, and thinking about the international community and the building of the Space Station. So I think we're going to be pretty well prepared in that area. I'm not too worried about it.

You talked a little earlier about, part of your new mission, being the enactment of, recommendations from the accident investigation board to protect orbiters and crews in the future. In general, Eileen, what has been your impression over the last year of the findings of the accident investigation board and how NASA's working currently to implement, those complex findings?

I think the Columbia accident board did a fantastic job. They were committed, they believed in what they were doing, and they took a very, very difficult problem. Think back to the March and April time frame of 2003. We were actually saying that we may never find out what caused the accident. It was that difficult for us initially. Yet they took their talents and they went out and got the people that they needed, they got the resources that they needed, they interviewed the, the engineers and the managers inside NASA, and took their brain power and they found out. They found the cause of the accident and, a lot of other things along with it. I would say that the report that they wrote was excellent. It's a must-read for every NASA employee, or for anyone that works in the space community. In fact, I would go as far as to say that that report is a must-read for people that work in businesses anywhere, because there is so much to learn from that report. When I read the report, I was looking for myself in there -- what would I have done if I was this person, or if I was at this meeting, or if I had known this piece of information? And, to me, it was a learning tool. This is a good opportunity for me to send out my thanks to the members of the accident board for the sacrifices that they made to their personal time and their dedication to finding the cause of this accident. They really did it for the Columbia crew. They stayed in very good contact with the Astronaut Office through their whole process during the investigation and at the end of the investigation. I thought they did a fantastic job and I thank them for their efforts.

Certainly, folks who follow human space flight know who Eileen Collins is. You were the first female Shuttle commander, and, obviously, a very visible figure in human space flight. But I still think there's a natural curiosity for people to want to know how you became an astronaut. What inspired you to want to become an astronaut in the first place?

Well, I love talking about this subject. I have always loved flying, ever since I was a small child and growing up in Elmira, N.Y. I'd watch the gliders fly overhead. Elmira, with its Harris Hill, is the "soaring capital" of America, and I was very fortunate to have grown up in that area. I went to summer camp near the Soaring Museum and the glider field. My family never had the money to get me flying lessons or even get me a ride in an airplane. I think my desire to fly just continued to build. The way I helped satisfy that as a child was to read books. I learned about flying from every different perspective, civilian flying and military flying; I read about, World War I, World War II, all the way up through the Vietnam War. And, when I got a job at age 16 I started saving money. Eventually I had saved up $1,000 and I took that to my local airport, at age 19, and I asked them to teach me how to fly. Very timid, very shy, you know, there are no other women up there, this was a guy thing but I wanted to do it anyway. And, my flight instructor was a former F-4 pilot from Vietnam, and, he really inspired me. I went on to military flying. It turned out that the year that I started military pilot training for the Air Force, 1978, was the same year that NASA took their first women into the Shuttle program. The six women that were in the first Shuttle class became role models to me. They were Mission Specialists but I knew that I wanted to be a pilot. I knew that this program existed, and that's when I decided that someday I was going to go on and fly as an astronaut. I've also been very interested in science, astronomy and geology, and the history of the space program. I love flying in the sense that it's a challenge -- hitting a certain airspeed at a certain altitude, hitting a certain attitude, whether you're doing acrobatics or formation, or flying instruments. Flying is a challenge, and I found it was something that I could do well. I was never very good at sports in school; as much as I tried, that just wasn't my thing. But I found that I could fly and I could do this well, so that's why I chose flying as my career. Taking flying and interspersing it with my desire to learn about subjects that I was interested in -- astronomy, the history of the space program -- being an astronaut was the perfect job for me.

Has anything over the past year diminished your love for what you do, or perhaps altered that type of perspective?

No, not at all. In fact, take a look back in my career. In 1986 after the Challenger accident, I was in graduate school. The accident, obviously, was just a terrible tragedy, and as the news was unfolding in the media I found just how interested I was in learning about what happened and learning more about the Shuttle program. But I immediately wanted to apply to the astronaut program after the Challenger accident -- I thought they needed help, and I wanted to be there. I wanted to be part of helping the space program move on and do great things ... along with the fact that I wanted to fly. That was the first time that I applied to the astronaut program, when they took their first series of applications after the Challenger accident. I don't regret any of that one bit. I would say that as the years have gone by and I have learned more about the Space Shuttle, the Space Station, just the space community and the business that we're in. I have a love for this business and I want to really make a contribution. So I would have to say that when we have difficult times, the post-Challenger period, the post-Columbia period, I see that's where the best in people comes out. I am hoping that that's what I'm doing going through these difficult times, that I can increase my gains and give more than I would have given otherwise. So to answer your question, no. If anything, the difficult times increase my sense of commitment.

Eileen, in the, summer of 1999, you commanded, in your first command, Columbia, the grand old ship no longer with us, on the STS-93 mission to deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory. And, right off the launch pad you had electrical problems. You had a main engine ding which, in retrospect, presented a problematic ascent to orbit, although the Shuttle certainly was robust enough to overcome it. In looking back at that ascent and the aftermath, and applying the lessons that you learned in the post-Columbia time frame, what is risk all about as far as space flight concerned? Is the ultimate reward of space flight and the goals that astronauts achieve for their respective nations and national policy, is it all worth that risk?

Oh, clearly, yes, without a doubt. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and if it's difficult I think we ought to go do these things anyway. Yes, it's worth the risk -- here I am. I'm an astronaut, I'm going up on my fourth flight and I'm going to be the commander of the next mission. I don't have to be here. I could have, you know, flown once and then left to go do other things, I could have flown three times and left, I could have not even applied to be an astronaut. But, I think it's worth the risk. And I'm sitting here to tell you that. I don't take unnecessary risks, and I'm certainly not going to fly a mission if I don't think it's safe. Our crew is in a position where we know what's going on. We have access to all kinds of information and all kinds of people. If we're not happy with something, we'll talk about it; we'll make sure it's fixed. If it's something that can't be fixed, we'll look at, hey, what is the risk really? How big, how small is it? What's the probability that this event may happen? And we'll decide what risks we fly with and what we don't fly with. Now, we can't possibly know everything so we need to trust our engineers and our managers that, that work through the system. But I believe so much in space exploration that I am committed to being part of it. And, it, it's so exciting. You can also look back into history and look at the risks that people took when they explored. How did people get to the Hawaiian Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? They didn't fly in there on a comfortable 757; they got in boats, and they took these dangerous trips across the Pacific Ocean, and many of them died. But they eventually inhabited the Pacific. And you can use the same analogy with the European explorers that came to America. They all took risks. But, why did they do that? Because there was a better life, because they had a need to explore, and they wanted to go do new things. They wanted to discover new things. Maybe there was an economic benefit there. But, they did that, and they weren't afraid; I would have to say they were probably excited about doing those things. And, maybe they wanted to leave a life that was not good for them and look for a better life somewhere. But whatever their motivations, they explored. And, frankly, that's the way we are. And even in this country, the United States of America, I believe that we're a nation of explorers and immigrants. We are the kind of people who want to go out and learn new things and I would say take risks, but take calculated risks that are studied and understood. And I want to be part of that, because I think the benefits that we get from that -- and, again, take a look at our history -- are very much worth the efforts. People will die as we go through this, and that's, obviously we don't want people to die, we don't want, you know, to lose expeditions or, you know, if you think back to, I mean, there are millions of examples in history of, of people taking risk but, look what happened in the end. We're all better for it. So it's just a long process and I'm happy to say that, that I'm part of this new era of exploration, which is going into space.

And in regard to the risks themselves, Eileen, do you, do you look at these risks, generically, differently today than you would have a year ago, and say, perhaps, "My gosh, I thought I knew everything about the Space Shuttle and I didn't, and I may never." How, do you look at risk and risk mitigation today?

Well, I think I have learned more about the Shuttle system in the past year; I'm always learning more about it and I will never know everything about the Shuttle. I think I have learned that there are risks with the Shuttle that I didn't know about a year ago, and I find that I'm happy with the progress that's being made in minimizing these, understanding them better ... but I don't think I've basically changed my attitude. People often ask me, "Are you afraid to fly in space?" My answer is no. If I was, I wouldn't be here. None of us astronauts would be here if we were afraid to fly in space. When I walk out to the launch pad I am focused on what I have to do next. I've got to strap in, I've got to check the switches, I've got to check all of my Flight Data File, I've got to follow the procedures, make the radio calls, make sure that my life support gear is, is right, make sure that my crew is getting along OK and they're all getting their jobs done, and I'm just focused on what I'm going to do next. When we launched on STS-93, at five seconds we had the caution and warning message, we had the electrical short and the main engine controllers failed. And I immediately went into the "simulation mode," meaning that, what did I do when I was training in the simulator: I pushed this button, I made this radio call, I referred to this procedure in the Flight Data File. And that's the way we think as astronauts. We just do what we need to do, what we have control over. And if something happens that we've never trained for, we use our judgment based on everything that we've learned. We all feel that we have a great amount of control as we fly the Shuttle, not just control in flying it, but in working malfunctions and interacting with the systems. I think that gives us a lot of confidence when we fly, especially confidence in the work force and the people that got the Shuttle together and ready to fly.

The aftermath of Columbia, the preparation for Return to Flight becomes such a personal issue. I'm curious as to what types of things you've discussed with your husband and your family since the accident, in the days after the accident, perhaps, and what do you think you'll be talking to them about as you prepare to fly down to the Cape for the real launch countdown, whenever it occurs?

Well, my husband is an airline pilot, and he was an Air Force pilot in the past. In fact, we met in the military as we both flew cargo airplanes. He really understands the flying environment. He understands the risks involved in flying. As I talk to him about the Space Shuttle program, I can talk to him about, "Hey, we did this today," or this issue has come up. He understands. My husband has been just fantastically supportive of my job. He has never once asked me not to fly. You know, I've even gone to him and asked, "What do you think about me flying another mission.” He says, "It's your choice." He has been just tremendously supportive. I have two children. "My youngest is too young to really talk about risk -- he knows where mommy sits and that's about the extent of his understanding at this point. But he's pretty excited about the Space Shuttle. He can recognize the Space Shuttle from a distance and talk about it at his level. But I have an older daughter, who I really do need to talk to, and I have been talking to her. In fact, to share a little story with you, in December, around Christmastime of 2002, I told her about the Challenger accident. She had just turned seven and she had never heard of the Challenger accident or the crew. So I showed her a picture of the crew, and told her their names and who they were and what they had done, and how they were heroes -- and, and they, you know, really loved what they were doing. I told her about the accident and how it happened, and I told her (that problem) has been fixed ... and that will never happen again. Then, five weeks later, we had the Columbia accident. I had to start that process over with her. That was difficult, but it's going to be a long process. Immediately after the accident, I told my daughter, "Mommy's not going to fly for a long time so I don't want you to worry. We have lots of time to talk about this, and we've got lots of time to figure out what happened and to get things straightened out." Occasionally I'll bring up our mission and what we're doing, but I have made it a mission of mine to help her learn more about what we're doing in space, because I find that a person will have less fear if they understand what's going on. So I've had her in the Shuttle simulator, I've had her in the mockups that we have here at Johnson Space Center, I've had her out to the EVA pool, where we practice doing spacewalks. I've had her out to the airfield where we fly T-38s, and I'm helping her learn more about our mission. She's pretty excited about it. And when I eventually go down to fly, I know my husband's going to be fine and I know my, my little toddler is going to be fine, but I want to make sure that my daughter, who is now 8, isn't worried about me going into space but she's more excited about our mission. That's my goal, and I think it's going to be a process getting there. It isn't just my family but it's my whole crew and their families. We're bringing them in and trying to get all of our crew and our families to get to know each other really well so when they all go down to the launch together they can provide that support for each other.

And similarly, Eileen, what would you say to kids who might have been hurt by Columbia? How do you maintain their dream about human space flight in the wake of all of this?

Well, I still go to schools and talk to children about the space program. I love what I'm doing so it's easy for me to talk to kids. Let me just give you an example. I'll just tell them, "This is what the 114 mission is all about. We're going to the Space Station, we're very excited about our flight. There are astronauts in space right now, orbiting the Earth, they're operating a Space Station, they're helping us learn more about people living in space for long periods of time so someday your generation will be able to go farther and to do more things. The Space Shuttle flights, and my flight going next, are going to resupply the Space Station, we're going to help build the Space Station, and we're going to be doing science experiments, not just our country but other countries. We're going to be thinking about the next missions ... maybe going back to the Moon or going on to Mars someday, and eventually leaving the solar system and exploring other worlds." To me this is so exciting that I try to get the children interested in being part of this great mission someday. I encourage them in three things: Do well in school, do well in your academics; get involved in sports and community activities where you can learn to work as a team with other people; and, keep yourself healthy, sleep right, eat right is important, but stay away from drugs and alcohol, keep your friends away from drugs and alcohol. And think about the, the higher calling in life -- exploring and learning and helping our world be a better place to live. So, those are the messages I try to give to schoolchildren. Now, in the aftermath of the Columbia accident, we can use their mission and their crew as an example of people that were so dedicated to their mission and how well they worked together -- they, the Columbia crew, were smart, they studied, they were dedicated to their mission, they worked together as a team, they communicated well, they were just a model for other crews to look at. They kept themselves healthy. You can use them as an example of these things that I like to encourage children to do. And, despite the fact that there is a tragedy here, good things can come from this. I don't try to focus on the accidents, but children will often ask about them so it's important that we find the good things that can come out of this. The rededication and bringing out the best in people and trying to make the space program better as we learn from these things. There is something positive that can come out of this. And this is what I want to pass on to schoolchildren.

What is it, Eileen, that you envision as the long-term future for human space flight? Where do you think we're headed?

Well, I would like to see people walk on the surface of Mars someday. That's my dream, and I hope that happens sometime in my lifetime. I certainly would like to see our country lead that effort. But do we go back to the Moon first? Do we go straight to Mars? How do we do this? There are a lot of questions there. Obviously, the Space Station must be completed. We're almost there. We've got more components that we have to fly but the Space Station is going to be a test bed for missions to Mars in the sense of studying the human body. How does the human body adapt to space, microgravity, over long periods of time? What kind of countermeasures do we need to develop? This is what the Space Station is really for, in my opinion, but I would like to see people leave this planet. I would like to see Space Stations built in various places in the solar system, whether it's on the Moon or on Mars or at points throughout the solar system that, that will provide a good scientific study. I'd like to see better means of propulsion developed so we can travel to places outside of the solar system. And, sure, this is science fiction, this is beyond my lifetime, but these things will happen someday. It's been a hundred years since the first flight of an airplane; and look how far we've come. Where are we going to be a hundred years from now? Who knows? I'm hoping that there's some smart person out there, maybe a schoolchild who someday will come up with a new propulsion system that can get us places faster. So this is my dream and I know that with the Space Shuttle we're taking baby steps. Butt we're taking the right steps right now. And I hope to see the next commitment that we make is to put people on Mars.

And, Eileen, there are, of course, many steps over the next year or so until your Return to Flight mission. What, as the next year unfolds, do you see as the most challenging aspect for you and your crewmates in training and preparation for this very critical mission?

Well, clearly the most challenging thing that we'll be faced with over the next year is not only training for the mission, but following the development of the new objectives on the mission. Normally, as a crew trains for a mission we have a very standard schedule. We have runs in the, in the water as we practice spacewalks, we have launch and entry simulations, we practice handling whatever payloads or whatever logistics, and we practice flying the robot arm for the Shuttle and the Station. It's a very regimented schedule, very tight scheduled. But for the Return to Flight mission, this is very different in the sense that the two objectives of inspection and repair are still in the development process, and our crew is needed to be part of that development and to help with what we're going to be doing. And some of these techniques have not even been finalized yet. So we're going to have to divide ourselves between our standard training and that development, and that will be difficult. To handle that, I've put spots in our schedule and moved some of the training a little bit further back from our launch date, so we can have some time for development, or maybe for trips to various engineering centers to help with the development. It'll be tough. But, you know, we'll do the best we can: we have great engineering support and we have great people working on these, these, new objectives, so, we'll just keep a close eye on it.

You and your crewmates, for this mission, as well as any flight crew, wind up, just inevitably by human nature, being the most visible symbol of any flight, as you are for STS-114. But, the fact of the matter is, is that there are thousands of people that are working tirelessly every day throughout these months to create the foundation upon which you can launch one day in the not-too-distant future. What would you, as the commander of this mission, say to NASA employees as they press ahead, work every day, work through the anniversary itself and beyond, to help Shuttle's return to flight, help your mission?

Well, I am trying to encourage people to be creative. Not just the NASA employees but all the people that support the space program, whatever company you work for, do a great job, but we can go further. I am trying to tell employees, "Don't just ... go farther -- try to be creative, look at better ways that you can do your job, think about, you know, what are we going to be doing in the future; how do we bring, for example, the, as the Space Station is built, how do we bring, bring changes in as the Station matures. We're going to be flying the Shuttle in new and different ways. Think about whether you know, better ways to do objective A, B, or C." And the second point is, is to really listen and to speak up. No matter where you are, in management or engineering or administration or operations, whatever area that you work in, listen to what people are telling you. I always thought I was a listener, but I can always listen better. When someone tells me something, I need to come back with a question -- well, why are you saying it that way, or what do you think about this -- and, instead of just saying, OK, to probe a little bit further. And, the second part of listening is speaking up. I think if there's, especially for new employees, sometimes they don't speak up as readily as, as I think they should. And, I think, especially from a new employee's perspective, you have a fresh look on, at things. Bring up your ideas, and, and, you know, don't be afraid of, you know, someone saying, well, you know, we've, we've thought about that already, but, but bring up these ideas. And then, the person who's listening needs to, you know, don't just stop the person and say, hey, we've already looked at that; you know, let's, let's keep having a fresh look at things. So, so those are two messages that I like to get out. On the other hand, I'm very proud of what our employees are doing. So, whenever I get a chance I thank them for their efforts, and ask them to continue with their dedication to space exploration, a little bit more than just doing your everyday job, but take that extra step.

Eileen, is that recommitment to listening and speaking and hearing all of the opinions of those who, who are offering them, is that all part of the cultural lesson that the accident investigation board said that NASA had to take a look at, as part of its recommendations?

I do want to say that I think NASA is a great organization to work for. If you look at it from my perspective, I came here from the Air Force. I had worked in many, many jobs before I came here -- NASA is by far the best organization, as far as opportunities and equal opportunities. And, speaking from a woman's point of view, there is no job at NASA that I can't do because I'm a woman, or there's no job that I would get paid less for because I'm a woman; there is no promotion that would be denied to me or offered to me because I was a woman. I feel like women are treated very equally at NASA. That's a good part of our culture, and it's something you don't even think about. You know, as we go through our job, day to day, it doesn't matter what the person looks like that you're working with, whether they're a man or a woman, what color they are, what background they came from, what country they were born in, that doesn't matter. It's, "What's the mission, what's the issue, are you prepared to talk about this, are you prepared to work on this?" Their dedication is what matters. And, that's a good thing about our culture. I will say that reading the Columbia accident report, there are things that we can do better. People need to listen and people need to break away from the ways we have always done things, and we know that. And I know that people are working harder at doing this. I think we, we've got a ways to go, but I think we can get there because we have a, we have a great work force, people are resilient, they're dedicated and they love the mission. I think we're doing OK and we're going to get there.

Almost a decade ago you were the pilot aboard Discovery that rendezvoused with the Russian Mir space station, and then a few years later you actually climbed on board Mir in your second flight. And on your fourth flight you'll visit another Space Station, the International Space Station. Although yours is dubbed the Return to Flight mission, the reality is that humans have never been out of space, not for more than three years now. The continuous human presence in space has been made possible in the wake of Columbia because of the efforts of the international partnership that is the Space Station program. Talk a little bit, if you will, about this international partnership and how critical it has been for it to pull together in the way it has to maintain a continuous human presence in space during this down period.

I think the Russians have been fantastic. They have continued support of the International Space Station. They've done the best they can with the resources that they have, with their Soyuz missions doing the crew exchange flights, with their Progress missions doing the cargo resupply of the Space Station. If you look back to the Mir program, I thought the Mir program was tremendously successful, not just in what we did with the missions, technically, but what we did as two countries coming together and learning how to work together. And this happened at the "worker bee" level, at the engineer level as well as at the management level, where people learned other people by name, what their job was, how it was to work with them, what kind of cultural barriers there were, what the technical needs were of the other side. And we built such a good relationship in the Mir program that getting through the initial parts of the ISS program has been just much smoother than it would have been otherwise. And, I think we've just learned to be great partners with the Russians. Of course, we also have the Canadians and the Japanese and the Europeans. The Japanese and the Europeans have built their components of the Space Station, which have not yet been launched, but they will be. It will take time, but once we get the Shuttle returned to flight we will get their components launched and they will be able to carry on their science programs on the International Space Station. And our astronauts have learned to work together -- the communities, the scientists, engineers, managers have learned to work together. And I think we're a better program because of that.

Let's press on with a second set of questions and a final set of questions, Eileen. In a big picture sense, how important is your flight, this first return to flight for Space Shuttles, in getting the agency psychologically back in the saddle, to do its business again and to carry out its objectives? What kind of a psychological issue is there here with your flight, you as the commander of STS-114, in doing this and doing it well and safely?

Well, obviously the next Shuttle flight will be a very big deal, and obviously we as a crew are committed to making that as successful as possible. There are things that need to be done before the next Shuttle flight. There are 15 recommendations of the accident board that we as NASA have committed to making these recommendations, to satisfying these recommendations before we launch the first Shuttle flight after the accident. And we're very committed to that. But I would like to make the point that after the next Shuttle flight flies, we're not just going to drop everything and say, OK, we, we're here, we're just going to go back to operations again. No -- we're going to continue with parallel efforts at making things better, making the Shuttle safer. I believe that every flight after 114, incrementally, will be safer than the previous flight, because we are going to continue, we're going to, let's take some examples. The external tank -- there's better designs for the external tank that we'll continue to make these changes. There are better designs for the Shuttle wing leading edges; we will continue to make these changes. And we will continue to make the Shuttle safer to fly. And I think the psychological attitude we should have as we approach this is, every successive Shuttle flight will be safer; we're going to do something better on every flight. Not just learn from the past, which is important, but continue with these engineering changes. So obviously, the return to flight, there'll be a lot of attention on the mission. People want to know what changes have been made, why is it safer, but I would encourage the people throughout the country to continue to focus on what we're doing in space and continue to follow what we're doing. You're part of this program also, and we want to hear your feedback and we want your interest in the program.

As the anniversary of the accident approaches, Eileen, and you and your crewmates press ahead with your training for this complex flight, how would you reflect on this past year for you personally, the loss of your friends on that crew, and how it has changed your life perhaps.

Well, I knew all of the Columbia crewmembers. I worked with them; they were my friends. I knew some better than others, but I knew all of them, and, you know, I miss those guys, and I think about them every day, and I have reminders of them in my life because I want to remember them -- the reminders I have at home, the reminders I have in my office, I would say it just gives me strength versus, you know, initially you go through this grief and this sadness, and as time goes on you start looking at them and using them as role models. And I continue to think about conversations that I've had with them, especially the last time I had talked to each one of them, and they were just fantastic people. And I find that as time goes on, I draw strength more from my relationships with them than sadness. And I know that they're all up there, watching us, and watching this development that's going on in getting the next Shuttles, the next missions, back into space again, and I think they're saying, come on, guys, let's get on with it -- let's get spaceflight going again, and let's do it right. So, I feel like we have them watching over us.

And, finally, Eileen, back in September of 1988, when Discovery was launched on the first post-Challenger mission, STS-26, Rick Hauck and his crew deployed a satellite hours after launch, and then pretty much over the next few days of their mission they remembered the Challenger crew. It was in their hearts; they communicated that. The commemoration of the post-Challenger recovery permeated their mission. Once you're on orbit and you're going through your complex flight plan, how much will the Columbia crew be standing over your shoulder, right behind you on the flight deck? How much will you and your crewmates be thinking about them and what they sacrificed to make your mission possible?

Well, you know, obviously we're going to be remembering the Columbia crew during our mission. Specifically, there are things that our crew is looking at now: our patch, for example. We're going to have a remembrance to them on our crew patch, we're going to make a modification to it; we plan on getting their families and friends involved in our mission to the extent that they want to. We plan on doing something on orbit. We will fly remembrances of them on our mission. And, no secrets to let out at this point, we still are in the process of working on this. But, you know, clearly, we are going to be doing something to remember them. And, you know, their contributions in the missions that ... the science that they did on their mission were in preparation for science that would eventually happen on the Space Station. So we're going to just really focus on their mission, the individuals and their commitment in the way they worked together as a group in how that will help us continue with our Space Station development. So, you can be assured that they will certainly be remembered.

+ Read Collins' 2005 Preflight Interview