Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command the space shuttle, entered the ranks of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame wearing the same two-piece blue suit she wore to her astronaut selection interview nearly 25 years ago.
"It is really old and it is little bit tighter on me, but it is the same suit I wore for the interview and I saved it," Collins told reporters on Saturday (April 20), just before attending the ceremony that saw her and her fellow astronauts Curt Brown and Bonnie Dunbar enshrined into the Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. "It is as close to 'NASA blue' as I could find at the time."
The twelfth group of space shuttle veterans to be inducted into the Hall, the 2013 class was the first to include more women than men. Collins and Dunbar, the latter a mission specialist and payload commander who flew five times to space, were honored just two months shy of the 30-year anniversary of the first American woman flying in space, the late Sally Ride, who was inducted in 2003. [ Women in Space: A Gallery of Firsts ]
Two dozen of the Hall of Fame's previous honorees turned out Saturday to welcome Brown, Collins and Dunbar into their ranks, including Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, first shuttle pilot Robert Crippen and astronaut Charles Bolden, who today serves as NASA Administrator.
"Congratulations to the three incredible inductees," Bolden said.
Brown, Collins and Dunbar are the second group of space shuttle veterans to be chosen to enter the Hall since the 30-year winged-orbiter program came to an end in 2011. To have been eligible for this year's class, astronauts had to have launched on their first mission in 1995 or earlier. They also needed to be retired from flight status as a commander, pilot or mission specialist for at least five years, be a U.S. citizen and have orbited the Earth at least once.
Proud and humbled
Brown, who flew six shuttle flights, including commanding the 1998 mission that returned John Glenn to space nearly four decades after he became the first American to orbit the Earth, described being inducted into the Hall of Fame as "overwhelming."
"I never imagined as a small kid wanting to fly that I would ever be in this position," Brown told reporters. "First of all, I was very lucky to have the shuttle missions that I had and today, to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, is just beyond belief."
"I was so happy to have my first mission back in 1992. You never know if you are going to have a second one," he said. "And then I got my second one, and my third one and my fourth one and then as you all know, my infamous mission, STS-95, with John Glenn on board. The joke is, 'Was John on your mission or was I on his mission?'" [ 8 Surprising Space Shuttle Facts ]
"I think I was the commander of that flight," Brown teased, "but that will definitely be in my memory for a long time."
Dunbar also cited Glenn, who was one of her role models for becoming an astronaut.
"You have to remember my role models were men, so I was watching John Glenn and Alan Shepard and also the engineers I read about [like Mercury spacecraft designer] Max Faget," Dunbar said. "What I am really proud about is that our country decided that it was important to include women in the exploration of space."
Dunbar, whose five flights included the first space shuttle docking to the Russian Mir space station, said she was "deeply honored" by her enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
"There's probably no other event that would be so special than to be recognized by their peers," she said. "Humbled, but very honored."
Astronauts on display
In addition to celebrating the new Hall of Fame astronauts at Saturday's public ceremony, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex also honors the inductees in a museum dedicated to the space flyers' lives and accomplishments. The Hall of Fame facility is currently located off-site of the main visitor center, but plans are in place to soon move the museum to the visitor complex's grounds and expand its displays to include the new shuttle honorees.
With 85 members, the Astronaut Hall of Fame exhibits the world's largest collection of astronaut memorabilia.
For the 2013 inductees, choosing what to display presents a new challenge.
"I am trying to get over the initial shock of being in the Hall," Brown said. "I don't know [what items I will display] — I will have to go back and think about that — [but] that is an interesting problem to have."
Collins shared that she has "quite a collection" to choose from, and hoped her display would represent the missions she flew, as well as perhaps "a personal touch."
"I have my clothes, my personal things, and I have quite a large collection of shuttle engineering drawings, training manuals, backup Flight Data Files that did not fly in space — I saved all of it," Collins said. "I can't even tell you how much I have, but it is quite a bit."
But, Collins said, she will not be donating the suit that she wore to her astronaut interview and her induction.
"I'm not going to donate it," she commented. "It is a nice suit but just because it has special meaning, I'm not going to donate it."