Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars
© 2021 Eileen Collins
Eileen Collins was obsessed with flying. Maybe it was an unusual preoccupation for a girl, but her parents – despite their struggles with mental illness and alcoholism – always encouraged her to pursue her own path. Despite a slow start, an unremarkable high school career, Eileen found her drive as she approached the end of her teens….and threw herself onto a path would take her to the US Air Force, and into Earth orbit, an accomplished pilot and well-respected mission commander. Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars is the remarkable biography of a young woman who overcame the challenges of a difficult, mis-spent youth to become a pioneer in aviation, clearing the way for other women who wished to become military pilots…or even astronauts.
If anything marks Through the Glass Ceiling, it’s dogged hard work. Throughout, Collins takes on enormous workloads and commits herself to being The Best. In retaliation for wasting her high school years on pipe courses, Collins continually challenged herself every year thereafter. She never settled for less: when she realized that the Air Force held women to lower standards of fitness and physical performance than the men, she requested permission to train with the men – not willing to be anything less than she could be. These were not easy years for a woman to pursue a career in the armed forces, particularly the Air Force: not only did Collins experience campus hostility when she wore her ROTC uniform, but the Air Force had only recently opened pilot training to women, and even then it was scrupulously avoiding pilot assignments that would put women anywhere near a combat zone. That made navigating into NASA particularly challenging, because it required pilots to have fulfilled Test Pilot training, and that program’s requirements weren’t readily fulfilled by the support aircraft Collins was allowed to fly as a woman. But even if was just flying a transport, she’d be the best transport pilot imaginable – studying manuals to know her systems in and out, hanging out with the mechanics to absorb information that most pilots overlooked. As it happened, her time spent flying ‘trucks’ was excellent background for the shuttle program.
Getting into NASA when she did was an extraordinarily close thing, between fulling her service obligations to the Air Force and avoiding the age cut-off for the Test Pilot program. Collins’ commitment to excellence and unwavering hard work won her allies, people who realized she had what it took to make go further – she had the right stuff. Collins was often given choice opportunities, like flying in an F-15. After joining NASA, she performed well in her first two missions as a shuttle pilot, and then became the first woman to command a shuttle mission: she was chosen to be the ‘first’ because NASA knew whatever the stress, Collins could handle it. It helped that she had moral support from other pioneers, like Sally Ride – the first American woman in space, and someone who knew the immense pressure Collins was under. Ride reached out to Collins both before her first shuttle mission, and before her first command. Most notably, Collins’ command was the first Shuttle mission following the Columbia post-mortum: she carried not only her crew’s lives, but the future of the program on her shoulders.
Through the Glass Ceiling will rank as one of my favorite astronaut memoirs, though Collins offers more content than just a recap of her missions. Cognizant of her role as a pioneer – being the first woman to fly an F-15, for instance, or command a shuttle – she frequently offers lessons to the reader, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing her mistakes, either. She goes into considerable detail about all the various aspects of her career, which – to any reader fascinated by aviation – makes this a potluck of interesting planes and observations about the challenges of pushing them to the limit. This one is absolutely recommended, especially for parents who want to encourage their teens to go beyond what they think is possible.