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Eileen Collins

Eileen Collins

STARS IN HER EYES

The Air Force introduced former astronaut Eileen Collins to the wonders of astronomy

As a child, I learned very little about astronomy in school. We were only taught that there were nine planets, which revolved around the sun, and that ancient peoples thought the sun revolved around the Earth. Unfortunately, we never learned about deep space, nebulas, black holes or supernovas.

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My first Air Force assignment was in Enid, Okla. That's where I discovered the clear skies, and I was excitedly in awe of the multitude of stars. I could see the Milky Way galaxy from my backyard! I bought two telescopes and joined an astronomy book club. I learned the constellations, knew all the major stars and followed the tracks of the planets. I trained jet pilots then, and I later became an astronaut and commanded two space shuttle missions.

Stars look the same in space as they do on Earth, though they don't twinkle, because there's no atmosphere. As astronauts, we were required to know how to find primary stars by looking out the window. With a star tracker, we could identify our position in space. You can use the stars to navigate, and it's a very precise science but also an art — but people have lost that art. In the shuttle program, we didn't study the stars as much as the early astronauts did.

The space shuttle flew very close to the Earth's surface, about 200 miles away. We were exploring only a very small amount of the Earth's neighborhood. There's so much more to learn out there. Cosmology is my ultimate interest now, understanding the makeup of the universe and its origins.

When my children were younger, I'd take them out to a dark part of the neighborhood. We'd look at the sky, and I'd point out the constellations and the planets. I live in a big city now, and it's hard to see anything in the night sky, but someday I will move out to the country and get myself a nice telescope. I do have an observatory named in my honor at Corning Community College, in New York state, which I visit once in a while.

From traveling in space and studying astronomy I've learned that it's not all about me. All these little things in life that distract you and frustrate you — whether it's something wrong with your house or car, or something that didn't go right at work — it's just not that important.

We're dots on the surface of a ball that's spinning, hurling itself around a sun, in a universe that's so massive, we don't even know how big it is. To me, that's just mind-boggling.

Eileen Collins, 58, lives in San Antonio. A retired astronaut, she now serves as vice chairman of the Astronaut Memorial Foundation.

This excerpt republished with permission from AARP. Read the original article in its entirety, and watch the video on aarp.org