The child of Irish immigrants, Elmira, N.Y.-born Eileen Collins ruled as the queen of Kennedy Space Center from the early 1990s through her retirement in 2006. During this time, the former military flight instructor and math wiz became the first female astronaut to serve as pilot of the Space Shuttle during STS-63, the 1995 rendezvous between the shuttle Discovery and Russian space station Mir (another female, the late Janice E. Voss, joined Collins on board as a mission specialist during the 2,992,806-mile mission).
Four years later, after a second visit to Mir as pilot of Atlantis during 1997’s STS-84, Collins graduated to become the first ever female commander of a shuttle mission during STS-93. Collins went on to command one other shuttle mission, 2005’s STS-114. When she retired three years later, Collins had logged a total of 872 hours in space during her four flights. To date, she has amassed an impressive collection of medals, awards and honorary doctorates and is an inductee in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Collins shared a few words of wisdom in a NASA profile released prior to STS-114: “We’re a nation of explorers. 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.” According to Collin’s NASA profile, in addition to commanding and piloting spacecraft, she enjoys slightly less risky activities such as golf and reading.