A First For Women In Space

When NASA launches the space shuttle Columbia this spring, an advanced x-ray telescope won't be the only innovation on board. For the first time in the 38-year history of the manned space program, the mission commander will be a woman. CBS News Correspondent Paula Zahn has her story.

For Eileen Collins, you might say it was love at first sight.

She recalls taking her first flight in an airplane at age 19 on a commercial airliner and deciding, "This is it. This is what I'm going to do."

"The following summer I took $1,000 up to my local airport and said, teach me to fly. I was hooked," Collins said.

Collins has come a long way from flying prop planes at a small airfield in Elmira, N.Y. She is preparing to do what no other American woman has done before in flight: she will be the first female commander of a shuttle mission.

"Being the first woman is adding a bit of pressure. But the only way I can survive that day... is not to think about the fact that I'm a woman, or the first woman, but just to think about my job and what is important to make it successful," Collins said.

Collins, 42, has already logged more than 400 hours in space, and became the first woman to pilot a shuttle in 1995. She has been breaking down barriers for women throughout her career.

"I was probably in the third or fourth class of women to go through Air Force Pilot Training," she says. "And believe me, we were watched very closely back then."

"I knew I was setting a precedent for the women to follow me. So I worked, I studied, I gave up going to partiesÂ… It was important to me to be successful, not really for me but to show people that women could do it."

There are only 19 women in the 120-member astronaut corps, and Collins believes it's because young women do not choose math and science in high school and college in the same numbers as men.

"This is a very technical world and if you really want to be part of the future you're going to have to have a technical background," she says.

Collins, who is married to a commercial airline pilot, has a 3-year-old daughter, Bridget.

"She understands what the shuttle is, and she knows that Mommy flies the shuttle," Collins says.

"She says she wants to be an astronaut...Just a couple days ago she asked me if I had ever been to the moon. And I looked back at her and I thought to myself, you know, you could go there someday. You could go to Mars. You know, I'm thinking, you could do anything you want."