Retired U.S. Air Force colonel and barrier-breaking astronaut Eileen Collins will receive the 2022 Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, honoring her for “perseverance in the advancement of aviation and aerospace as a teacher, astronaut, and leader,” the National Aeronautic Association announced.
The award established in 1948 in memory of Orville and Wilbur Wright is bestowed each year for “significant public service of enduring value to aviation in the United States.” Past recipients include Harrison Ford in 2010; R.A. “Bob” Hoover in 2014; and another military aviator turned astronaut, retired Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden in 2021.
Collins knew early in life she wanted to be a pilot, and worked multiple jobs to pay for flying lessons as soon as she was able, NAA noted. She joined the Air Force ROTC at Syracuse University, and learned NASA was recruiting women for astronaut duty in the shuttle program. The Air Force offered her the best path to qualify, and she completed undergraduate flight training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma as part of the first class to include women.
She went on to command Lockheed C–141 aircraft and instruct at Travis Air Force Base in California, amping up her astronaut résumé with graduate study at Stanford University in the Air Force Institute of Technology program. Collins soon marked another “first,” among the first women selected for the Air Force Test Pilot School, where she earned a reputation “as a cool, level-headed test pilot," NAA noted. She graduated in 1990, and NASA selected her for the astronaut program in 1991, leading to her selection as the first woman to pilot the space shuttle. That flight, STS-63 by the space shuttle Discovery, launched in February 1995, was not her last mission as shuttle pilot.
That came hundreds of space-hours later, with a particularly consequential assignment: STS-114, the first flight following the disaster in which the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed during reentry. NAA noted that former NASA Administrator Sean O’ Keefe said Collins was ideal for that assignment:
“As we prepared for the Return to Flight mission upon adoption of all recommendations advanced by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, she was the obvious selection to lead the mission. Her capacity to lead, adapt, and take initiative was the precise character traits we needed at that critical moment. No surprise, she executed that task brilliantly as she has so many others. Eileen is nothing short of heroic.”
Collins retired from NASA in 2006, and her flying career includes 6,751 hours logged in 30 different types of aircraft. She has received numerous other awards and honors, NAA noted.
“Eileen Collins has blazed trails, broken barriers, and achieved greatly at every step during her consequential career,” said NAA President Greg Principato. “Not satisfied with that, Eileen has continued to serve and inspire others in all kinds of ways. Her service to aviation and to her country embodies the qualities the Wright Trophy was created to honor. It will be an honor to present the Wright Trophy to her.”
That presentation will be made December 16 at the Wright Memorial Dinner in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Aero Club of Washington.
“I accept this honor with humility and a desire to serve,” Collins said. “My life has been full of opportunity, challenge, and adventure. I hope to continue inspiring young people to choose aviation and space careers, a path which is an incredibly rewarding life vocation.”
Additional information about this award including other past recipients is available on the NAA website.