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Collins named first female shuttle commander

Eileen Collins aboard Discovery in 1995   
March 5, 1998
Web posted at: 11:41 a.m. EST (1641 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a U.S. space shuttle, was named the nation's first female shuttle commander on Thursday.

The landmark announcement was made by President Clinton and his wife Hillary at a White House ceremony.

The milestone is the centerpiece of a week-long effort by the Clinton administration to spotlight achievements in science and math. Mrs. Clinton is to accompany Collins afterward on a visit to a local high school to discuss science.

"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," said Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary.

Expected to lead one of two upcoming missions

Collins, a 41-year-old veteran of two shuttle flights, is one of 27 women out of 229 people who have flown in the history of the space shuttle program, according to NASA.

The veteran pilot is expected to lead one of two coming shuttle missions. Columbia is to carry an X-ray telescope into space later this year, possibly in December, and Endeavour is expected to make a space station delivery in December or in 1999.

Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle when she flew aboard a mission in February 1995 that was the first flight of the new joint Russian-American space program, NASA said.

Her second shuttle flight in May 1997 was the sixth mission to rendezvous and dock with the Russian space station Mir. She has logged more than 419 hours in space.

Until '78, only men had the right stuff

Only one other woman, astronaut Susan Still, has flown as a space shuttle pilot. And only one other woman has flown a spaceship: former Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, flew solo for three days in 1963 as the first woman in space.

Until 1978, the U.S. space program was an exclusively male preserve, when the first group of six female astronauts joined the corps.

Among the women in that first group, four names stand out: Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman to fly in space in June 1983; Kathryn Sullivan was the first American woman to walk in space in October 1984; Judith Resnik died in the 1986 Challenger disaster; and Shannon Lucid broke the U.S. record for the length of time spent in space when she stayed aboard Mir for 188 days in 1996.

Christa McAuliffe, a civilian teacher, also died in the Challenger explosion, and is included by NASA among the 27 U.S. women to fly in space.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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