Learning from mistakes – Collins

by Chris Bergin

Eileen Collins explained her work ethic towards successful leadership is based on “watching mistakes (rather) than watching people who were perfect.”

After becoming the first woman to pilot the Shuttle in 1995, and then later the first woman to serve as Shuttle commander in 1999, Collins is about to lead the first Return to Flight mission since Columbia in 2003.

The Return to Flight of the Space Shuttle in the aftermath of the 2003 tragedy, is expected to be a mission not without risks.  It is planned that flight STS-114 will ferry supplies to the International Space Station and will experiment with possible technologies for repairing damage to the fragile skin of the Shuttle design.  Collins also intends to guide the Orbiter Discovery through an unprecedented maneuver – one that will see the Shuttle somersault close to the Space Station – to allow the crew to inspect and photograph the vehicle’s underside.
Collins’ former commander of the 1995 mission, James Wetherbee, said simply of her “She’s a great astronaut.”  He then went on to describe how, when faced with performing a complex set of tasks towards the end of the mission, “She handled it flawlessly… A virtuoso performance.”  In such tasks, it was noted that Collins had managed to line the shuttle up to obtain a satellite with just two bursts of the shuttle’s jets instead of the four that NASA had allocated resources for.
When questioned about her own leadership for the forthcoming space flight mission, Collins stated  “I’ve learned more about leadership by watching mistakes than watching people who were perfect.
“The leader’s got to listen”  But as she values decisiveness, she adds “My job is to make the decision.”
After retiring from the Air Force in January, Collins has been an astronaut since 1991.  During that time, Collins has managed to log more than 6,000 hours in 30 different types of aircraft and has spent an impressive 500 hours approximately in space.
As a young girl growing up, Collins said that she could only dream of flying one day.  A close friend from her high school days, Kathleen Booth, said Collins was always fascinated by planes.

“One time we were walking and a jet was passing overhead, and she looked up and said, ‘I wonder why there’s a stream behind some jets and not others,’ ” said Booth, now a school nurse in Elmira, NY. “She was always trying to figure things out.”

In the days when few girls were encouraged to pursue interests in science and engineering, Collins funded her way through flying lessons and landed herself a place at Syracuse University where she joined the Air Force upon graduating.

Here, Collins met husband Pat Youngs, who is today a pilot with Delta Airlines.  They have two children – a daughter, aged 9 and a son, 4.

In combining her role as NASA astronaut and mother, Collins recalled the morning of the Columbia disaster – a Saturday, when Collins was watching NASA’s TV channel with her son.  She told a reporter that as soon as she learnt that communication had been lost with the Shuttle crew and the vehicle subsequently destroyed, she had found some toys to keep her son occupied. Thankfully, she went on to remark, he was too young to realise what was going on.

Pat Youngs said of himself and his wife that they are “maybe a little bit more aware of things that can happen [in flight]”.  “It’s just what we do” he added. 

Of his wife’s next space flight mission STS-114, Youngs commented that although risk could never be eliminated, they had both decided that NASA had done everything in its power to ensure the Shuttle was safe enough to Return to Flight.

“We don’t really sit around thinking, ‘This could happen, that could happen.’ ” Youngs concluded.   

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