A soft-spoken but enthusiastic aviator with a ready smile, Collins is responsible for deployment of NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, a Hubble-class space satellite expected to open a new window on the universe.
She is not the first female space commander. That honor goes to Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who flew aboard a single-seat Vostok 6 capsule in 1963. But Tereshkova was little more than a passenger while Collins is responsible for deploying the Chandra and bringing Columbia and her four crewmates safely back to Earth.
She said the reason it's taken so long for a woman to command a space mission is because test-pilot training and experience flying high-performance jets, a requirement for shuttle pilots, is a recent development in the military.
"I'm honored to be the first woman to have an opportunity to command the shuttle," Collins said. "I started as a pilot in the military back in 1978 and things have changed as far as the available jobs that women are able to apply for."
"I knew it was going to be an evolutionary process and if our generation of women did our jobs, did them good, did them right, really stayed professional with everything we did, then eventually those opportunities would open," she added.
And they did. In 1993, the Secretary of Defense lifted the Air Force's last restriction on women flying combat aircraft.
"Now those opportunities are open to women and I think that's the way it should be," Collins said. "I'm glad that I've had the opportunity to be part of bringing those barriers down."
"You don't go to work thinking you're different because you're a woman and you might be treated differently," she said. "We are so focused on the mission, those things just don't enter the picture."
Maybe so. But Collins is in command of a $2 billion space shuttle and a $1.6 billion payload, putting her in a singular position of responsibility rivaled only by the commanders of aircraft carriers or fleet ballistic missile submarines. And so far, all of those have been male.
"Eileen's just trying to do her job," said crewmate Catherine Coleman. "I'm actually very excited about the historical significance, not for me, not for Eileen, but for the little girls out there."
"They're going to see the publicity that surrounds this flight and it's going to really bring home the fact to them that if Eileen can do what she set out to do... if we can achieve thee dreams, then a lot of the folks out there can achieve their dreams also," says Coleman.
Collins graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 1974. After earning an associate in science degree from Corning Community College, she received a bachelor's from Syracuse.
She later earned a master's degree from Stanford and another master's in space systems management from Webster University in 1989.
In 1990 while attending Air Force Test Pilot School, Collins was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate; she graduated from test pilot school that year.
Collins, who has logged more than 5,000 hours in flying time on 30 different types of aircraft, downplays the risk of the space shuttle.
"Women have been part of exploring throughout human history as groups migrated across countries as recently as [the] Americans who traveled from the eastern part of the U.S. to the West," she said.
"There were a lot of risks in going out into an unknown environment," Collins said. "But it's part of human beings' need to explore and to learn more about the world we live in."
By William Harwood