Eileen Collins became a NASA astronaut in 1991. She flew four space shuttle missions, two as pilot and two as commander. In fact, she was the first woman pilot and first woman commander of a shuttle. She spent a total of more than 537 hours in space. Collins was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 2001.
I know the shuttle-Mir program is going to hold a special place in history. The program started, really, before the first flight. The first flight started in 1995. In February of 1995, I was the pilot on that mission [STS-63] that did a close flyby to Mir. We rendezvoused at 30 feet. Our job was to test out all the equipment and the procedures. That paved the way for the first docking flight, which took place in June of '95. After the first docking flight, we flew several more missions. We took astronauts up to Mir that spent anywhere between three and six months on the Mir space station.
The reason we did this program was the Mir space station was up there, an opportunity for our astronauts. And NASA as an agency had to get experience at long duration spaceflights to help us get the International Space Station program started using real experience. I am so glad that we went to the Mir program because it made us so much better prepared for the International Space Station. Looking back, I have to say that the shuttle-Mir program was a tremendous success, despite the fact there was so much controversy going on. People outside of NASA were saying we should not send our astronauts to Mir because it was unsafe. There were leaks aboard Mir. The space station was old. They actually had a fire, and they had a Progress resupply vehicle that collided with the Mir space station. In that collision, there was depressurization. We completely lost the Specter module because all of the air leaked out of it. It took awhile for the astronauts and the cosmonauts to isolate the Specter to get the hatch up there to prevent the loss of all the air from Mir.
Two close calls and an old, ageing spaceship. It was easy for people to say, "Let's pull our Americans out of this program, because we are going to hurt somebody. We are going to kill somebody." But NASA looked very, very closely. We had several independent groups take a look at what we were doing with the Russians, what the Russians were doing with their Mir space station. Is it really technically safe to be there? Technically, the decision was made to continue the program, and we were able to do so safely. In that program, we built a working relationship with Russians which has lasted successfully to this date. Not without its bumps and bruises, but in the end it has been successful.
[This excerpt will be continued next month.]