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Eileen Collins Answers Your Questions on Orbit

In December we were invited to interview Commander Collins in a Shuttle cockpit simulator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The video and text versions of the interview are linked from Eileen's profile. During our discussions, she offered to attempt to answer some questions from our student constituents during her time on orbit as time permits.

photo of eileen collins in cockpit of simulator

We invited participants in the Female Frontiers project to pose questions from which your Student Ambassadors selected the best. These were then be passed on to Eileen.

The following is a text version of that transmission:

Commander Collins from the Columbia Orbiter:
      Houston - Columbia

Mission Control at Johnson Space Center:
     Go ahead

Commander Collins from the Columbia Orbiter:
      I'm back and ready to answer some Internet questions for the Ames site. If you have a few minutes here, I'll come.

Mission Control at Johnson Space Center:
     Please, the floor is yours.

Commander Collins from the Columbia Orbiter:

Okay, the first question was about building Chandra and what the most difficult obstacle for it to overcome is; and how you can overcome the harsh elements of space.

    The short answer to that is: Chandra has heaters, radiators, sun shades and thermal blankets. There is also a small vent valve that was opened while CHANDRA was in the Columbia payload bay, and there's a larger vent valve that will be opened here over the next few days during the sequence of getting Chandra into its higher orbit. Those vent valves are designed to keep contamination away from the sensitive instruments.

The next question is: What is it that Chandra hopes to accomplish, and how it will benefit us here on Earth?

    A good way to start that answer is to look at the spectrum of light: there's infra-red, there's visible, ultraviolet, X-rays and Gamma rays, and there's also radio. Chandra is focusing on the X-ray part of the spectrum, and we have other observatories that look at other parts of the spectrum. Chandra is the third of four great observatories. By studying X-rays we hope to learn more about the world that we live in by unlocking some of the secrets of the universe. For example, Chandra will study black holes, neutron stars, quasars, and other high-energy objects. Also, it may help us to search for the missing map of the universe.

The next question is: What was the view like outside during the ascent?

    Well, since we launched around midnight to one in the morning east coast time, it was quite dark, although while the boosters are firing and the main engines are firing, you see flashes of light in the windows. That was actually my third launch and my third night launch, so I don't have any way to compare it to a day launch, but maybe some day I will.
The next question is: How many hours of work do you do, culminating in a launch?

    Wow! The answer to that for this crew is that we've been training for 16 months. Although occasionally crews are assigned to missions as late as 9 to 10 months before a launch. So it really does vary on how much work it takes to set up to prepare for a launch. The long answer to that question is: astronauts are selected many years before they get assigned to a flight. From the time you begin your astronaut training you can fly anywhere from two years to as long as five to eight years before your first flight.

What else on orbit besides your training and preparation for maneuvers do you do?

    In this flight, obviously after the Chandra deployed, we've had many secondary experiments. They've all been very interesting. Some of the ones we spent the most time on are the SWUIS telescope which is a Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System. We also have some experiments where we're growing spores and plants and studying how they change in microgravity. We have a ham radio on board, and we have a high-definition T.V. Camera. We have a hinge experiment which is studying the future of solar array designs. We're also taking many pictures of the Earth and specific, certain targets that were asked for by scientists.
What kind of things do you do in your free time?

    We haven't had very much free time on this mission. I would have to say, we take pictures of the Earth or look out the window. It's tough to have much free time on a five-day flight because there is so much to do. We've been working pretty hard, but we enjoyed that too.

The second-to-last question I'll answer: What was your favorite part of preparing for the mission?

    My personal favorite part of preparing for the flight was training in the Shuttle Training aircraft and the T-38 airplanes that we use for space-flight readiness training.

What are some of the things that you will bring up to space?

    There were many things that we brought up. I'll just mention a few. The Chandra operations control center which is controlling the telescope is flying a banner on this flight. The Sunnyvale Air Force Squadron that controls the Chandra's upper speed booster, which is also an integral part of this mission, is flying a banner on this flight. We also have flags from several countries.

There are several other questions here: some short ones I can finish up with.

One question: You've studied and taught math. Do you still use math as a space shuttle pilot and commander.

    The answer to that is yes, very much so! We use math all the time in our every day life as shuttle astronauts. When you're in school it's important that you study algebra, trigonometry, geometry and calculus. After you use it enough, you'll be able to do math quickly and in applications to the parts of spaceflight.
Here will be the last question: When you are in space what do you miss most about being on Earth?
    The answer to that is, I'd have to say I miss my family the most. My husband and my young daughter who is three years old. I'll be seeing them, hopefully, tomorrow night.

    That concludes the Internet questions for the Ames site. Over.

Mission Control at Johnson Space Center:
Eileen, thanks for those answers. They were very illuminating and it's a good way to close, and patch our thanks over to Steve for answering those (another set of questions).

Commander Collins from the Columbia Orbiter:
      Okay, we'll do that


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