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An Interview with Eileen Collins

Video Version

The RealPlayer is available free of charge from: Progressive Networks.

NASA Quest: You are currently in the commander's seat, but you have been in the pilot's seat as well?

Eileen Collins: Yes, I have flown twice as a pilot.

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins NASA Quest: What's different now, being a commander and not a pilot?

Eileen Collins: Actually the stick and the instruments are the same on both sides, in terms of what is available to you. This is a speed break or throttle - on launch it's a throttle, and only the pilot has the throttle; and on landing both of these function as speed brakes. So there's a little bit of a difference there. These three CRTs display the orbiter systems and trajectory to us.

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins The main difference is the pilot, on his side panel at the top has all the electric systems, and the bottom panel has all the APUs (auxiliary power units) and the hydrolics, and the back panel has some of the main engine switches on it. photos taken during interview with Eileen CollinsOn the commander's side, this panel has the environmental and cooling systems, and I have circuit breakers for a lot of the pumps, fans and things like that.

The commander also has the the five on-board computers controls. You have a power switch, an output switch and a mode switch. These are some of what we call the MBMs which are the boxes in between the computers and the end-devices like the radar altimeter, inertial measurement units, star trackers - these are the boxes that translate the computer commands to the end product. That's it in a nutshell.

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins NASA Quest: As commander, do you still have piloting duties?

Eileen Collins: Oh, yes, the commander actually makes all the landings. A shuttle pilot has never actually landed the orbiter. All the landings are made by the commander in the left seat. The pilot is trained as a backup to the commander in case something breaks and the commander can't do the landing, so there is redundancy. The whole concept of the shuttle is that you have from two-three-five of everything, so that you can have backup systems just in case there is a problem.

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins NASA Quest: Is a commander, always a pilot first?

Eileen Collins: Yes, except for the very first flights. You obviously had to have some people come straight to the left seat. Nowadays the typical flow is that the pilot will fly twice as a pilot before he or she moves to the commander's seat. Occasionally the pilot will fly three times before moving to the commander's seat. It depends on who we need to fly a specific mission.

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins

NASA Quest: How much control do you actually have, and how much do you rely on mission control?

Eileen Collins: Mission Control has the capability to uplink certain things. For example on ascent or entry, they can uplink commands to change the communications systems in the flow of the communications. But for the most part, during ascent, most of the trajectory and main engine throttling is all done by computer control - things that were programmed in prior to flight.

The crew has the ability to intervene manually and even fly manually, or manually throttle the engines, or change the switch positions, if there is some kind of malfunction. The ground has the capability to some of that, but there is up to a seven to eight second delay for them to get the information. Then, once they send the information, there is another seven to eight second delay for the commands to go to the orbiter.

Depending on what they're doing, several times on orbit the ground will up-link changes to the software, like caution and warning limits. I don't know how simple it is, but it's a pretty common thing to change something like: at what temperature or pressure will a caution warning go off. Those things can be changed onboard or on the ground. There's kind of a system that's developed about what the ground normally does and what the crew normally does.

For the most point, it is important for the crew to be in control of the flying tasks. Like if you're doing a rendezvous or a docking, you need to be capable of making split-second decisions. So normally that is all done manually, and then we report to the ground what we've done. I think it's important that we talk to mission control and let them know what we're doing, and they let us know what they're doing as well. This system works out pretty well.

NASA Quest: Have you ever had that situation where you've had any serious problem, or immediate action was needed?

Eileen Collins: Not on any of my flights. But of course, when you train, every day that you train in the simulators, we do numerous malfunctions where the crew has to intervene. For example: if an engine fails you need to complete the shut down procedure inside. If we need to do an abort we have a switch here; we could do a return to launch site, an abort to orbit, or a trans-atlantic abort landing. Through the software we can start propellant dumps, we can change the throttle setting -there's all kinds of interactions. For the most part, in the absence of a malfunction, you just monitor the systems. Through the CRT systems, you can go back and forth and type in a series of commands to observe the systems and make sure everything is "healthy. " If we see a problem, for example a system goes out of limits, like the hydraulic pressure drops, or an APU goes to high speed, we have procedures to take care of those cases and make the orbiter as safe as possible to maintain orbit or to get back down to the ground.

NASA Quest: Before this, you were flying for the military. What we see right now and what you were doing before is obviously different, but how is the transition, from flying military planes to flying the shuttle?

Eileen Collins: There is a lot of carry-over between military flying and flying the shuttle. In my previous jobs I was as an instructor pilot in the T-38, and although it a two-seat airplane, we ran into a lot of situations that required instructing split-second decision making, which obviously helps in flying the shuttle. photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins From there I went on to fly C141s, which is a cargo airplane, but we had a large cockpit similar to this where we had an aircraft commander and a co-pilot, we had flight engineers, we had load masters, and flight nurses, all kinds of folks. In that job I started as a co-pilot, I became an aircraft leader and then an instructor pilot. I find there's a lot of similarity with that job and the job of being a shuttle commander. You have a crew and you need to learn what your crew's jobs are and where individual's talents are, and pretty much let people do their job and have them report to you if there's a problem. You're not always telling people what to do; you're expecting them to do their job and then they can report to you either when their job's complete or if there's any problem. I find that the way the crew members interact together here at NASA is very similar to what we did in the military.

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins NASA Quest: Tell us what it actually feels like when you're taking off: the physical feeling as well as the emotional feeling.

Eileen Collins: Of course leading up to the launch you're not sitting like this, you're laying on your back because the orbiter is in the vertical. It can be very uncomfortable laying on your back for that length of time, so you want the launch to happen so you can get into space, and then your back feels better. Actually the launch itself, when the main engines light, you feel a little bit of a tilt as the orbiter tips forward a little bit, and then it comes back. The boosters light, you feel the liftoff; you feel the shake. The orbiter is shaking so much that your hands sort of go like this on the buttons and you have to be careful that you don't push the wrong one. The same thing with your switches. You want to make sure you grab the right switch, because there is quite a bit of vibration in the first two and a half minutes when you're on the boosters.

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins

Both of my night launches were night launches, so we had a lot of lights flashing in the windows from the main engines and the boosters. The sound is very similar to what you hear while you're watching a launch, except it's louder. I like to tell people, it sounds like I'm standing in a room that's on fire, because it sounds like there's fire burning around you. Of course, you're in this suit and helmit, so a lot of it sounds muffled.

photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins When you're under the acceleration of the boosters, you go up to two and a half times the force of gravity, accelleration pushing back on your chest. Once the boosters separate you're back to 1G momentarily, you feel comfortable and can move around a little bit if you need to - reach for switches if you need to, and then in the remainder of second stage you slowly accellerate back through 2Gs to 3Gs. When you're at 3Gs, say if I was holding something that weighed one pound, it would feel like three pounds under the force of 3Gs. If you have a lot of suvival equipment on your suit, you can feel that force - in some respects, if it's not loose enough, you can have trouble breathing during the launch. I always make sure that my equipment in my suit is loose enough that I don't have any problem with that. photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins

photos taken during interview with Eileen CollinsThen when the main engine stops, you are immediately in microgravity. I remember on my first flight, I took my pencil out of my suit and I held it in front of me, and it floated. It really works! I knew we'd made it.

NASA Quest: How about emotionally? I know you must have so many things on your mind, maybe you don't have time to be scared, but I'm sure there must be things that go through your mind that you're thinking about.

Eileen Collins: I really think if you start bringing emotions into it, you're going to be distracted from your job. You've got to focus on your job and that's why it's important to have a plan in mind as to what you're going to be doing at every stage of the launch and ascent. And then when you actually fly, do what you said you were going to do. photos taken during interview with Eileen Collins Which displays are you going to look at, at what time; what switches do you move at what time. A lot of this stuff is planned in our procedures, but I think if you really focus on that and looking around, making sure that everything is in the right place, you're going to be focussed on your job, and your not going to have time to think of anything else. You can get emotional after the flight - but then you don't have time either! If you didn't do any training at all and went and launched in the space shuttle, you'd be scared to death. But because train and train and train, because we know the orbiter, know the systems and are very confident in our procedures and our jobs, it's not a piece of cake, but it's about as close as you can get, because you know what you're doing.

NASA Quest: Are you more comfortable flying yourself, or flying in a commercial airline?

Eileen Collins: Definitely more comfortable flying myself - without a doubt. Of course, my husband is a commercial airline pilot so I need to say, I'm comfortable when he's flying . I used to fly with him back in the Airforce before we were married. He does a good job, but for the most part pilots would rather being flying themselves.

NASA Quest: Could you walk us through a 24 hour time period

graphic of Chandra Eileen Collins: For my flight in particular, the most interesting day is flight day one. The start of course is liftoff, a lot of reconfiguring the Shuttle for orbit and doing some logistical things, but primarily flight day one of my mission will be the deployment of the Chandra Xray Observatory. Thatwill happen 7 hours and 17 minutes into the flight, so we'll be very busy setting up our computers and going through our procedures; raising the telescope to 30 degrees, do some more tests and raise it again to about 58-60 degrees. Then Cady Coleman who's our prime mission specialist for the depolyment will actually throw the switches to do the deployment. One minute after we get separation, I will actually fly the Orbiter underneath and away from the telescope a little bit out of plane to get the separation and then 15 minutes after that we'll burn one of our OMS (Orbiter Maneurvering Systems) engines and get good separation from the telescope . One hour after the deploy it's upper stage will burn and will send Chandra into a very high orbit. Eventually it will go up to 140,000 kilometers. Throughout our mission, ground control will be sending out commands to Chandra to configure it to a higher orbit - to kind of tweak the orbit - to set the attitudes and altitudes just right for the mission and they won't be done with that until after we land.

After flight day one, the next five days into the flight will be involved with the secondary experiments here in the middeck. but that's another story and but probably I can get into that at another time.

NASA Quest: How about a little bit about your eating, sleeping and relaxing on board the Shuttle.

Eileen Collins: There is very little time for relaxation, because time on orbit is very precious, and we need to do as much work as we can, especially on a five-day mission. So I don't assume that we'll be relaxing very much . But there are things that need to be done, like you need to eat, so you take a few minutes. We're actually scheduled for about 30 minutes to an hour for mealtime We use that for preparation, cleaning, cooking the food. I usually just eat a small dish of vegetables and maybe some crackers or something. I don't eat that much in space. Then of course you clean up and get ready for the next activity.

As far as sleeping, you can sleep anywhere you want in the orbiter. Usually you look for a place that's quiet that's not going to have a lot of traffic. We negotiate amongst ourselves as to who's going to sleep where, and on both of my flights I elected to sleep in the middeck with my head close enough to the stairs so that I could go up to the flightdeck immediately if there were a problem . I find that to be a rather quiet place. You've got the fans going. I sleep very well in space. We're scheduled for eight hours sleep, although I don't usually sleep the whole time. I find it very easy to sleep in space. You don't have any pressure points. You don't have to roll around - going to your right side and then to your left side - sleeping in space is very comfortable.

Eileen Collins with Tish NASA Quest: How do you explain to your daughter what you do?

Eileen Collins: I tell her about the space shuttle, what it looks like and what it does. I tell her She knows where Mommy sits, that the space shuttle goes in obit around the Earth and it doesn't go to the moon. I think a lot of children have misconceptions about that. Just a couple of days ago she asked me, "Mommy, have you been to the moon?" And I had to explain to her that the Space shuttle doesn't go to the moon. We don't have enough fuel to get there. She's starting to understand. She's only 3 years old so she doesn't really understand the enormity of what we're doing. She's seen launches on TV, but she'll see her first real launch this April when we go up. It should be about sunrise or so it should be a pretty good show.

NASA Quest: I have a four-year -old and I asked him if you could ask a question, what would it be? He wanted to know when you fly the shuttle do you go as high as heaven? Can you see God?

Eileen Collins: That's very interesting because I have had adults ask me that question also. You know, space is a place. Earth is a place. California, Florida and Texas are places. Space is a place and when you're up in space you're in a certain place - you move very fast around the Earth. You're going 18, 000 miles an hour. When you look at the Earth it doesn't look like you're going that fast, but I've never seen any UFOs, I've never seen anything spiritual or unusual up there, although there is something special about space flight. You're in a whole unique physical environment and the view of the Earth from space is breathtaking! The colors: the blues and the white; and the desert colors are beautiful. When you look at the Earth, the Middle East, or Europe, or the United States and think of all the history that took place there, that's kind of a neat feeling. I think in a way that could be considered a spiritual experience, because mentally you feel like been somewhere you've never been before.

NASA Quest: Thanks you very much for spending the time with us!


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