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Woman Named To Lead Space Mission

March 6, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Breaking yet another sex barrier, veteran aerospace pilot Eileen Collins became the nation’s first female space commander Thursday. ``Dreams do come true,″ she said.

Collins, who already held the distinction of being the first female space shuttle pilot, will command the Columbia on a mission, scheduled for December, to deploy an advanced telescope to peer into the deepest reaches of outer space. It will be her third space shuttle mission.

``When I was a child, I dreamed about space,″ Collins, a 41-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel, said at a White House announcement ceremony. ``I admired pilots, astronauts, and I’ve admired explorers of all kinds. It was only a dream of mine that I would someday be one of them.″

In a switch from usual practice, the Collins promotion was announced by Hillary Rodham Clinton, as President Clinton and NASA administrator Daniel Goldin stood at her side.

``When her mission launches next December, the next generation of girls and boys will be able to look to the heavens and think, `There’s nothing I can’t do,‴ Mrs. Clinton said. Harkening memories of America’s first trip to the moon, the first lady said NASA’s newest space shuttle commander will take ``one big step forward for women and one giant leap for humanity.″

Wearing her blue NASA flight suit and smiling broadly throughout the ceremony, Collins said she hoped her historic mission would capture the imagination of America’s youth.

``It’s my hope that all children _ boys and girls _ will see this mission and be inspired to reach for their dreams, because dreams do come true,″ said Collins, a native of Elmira, N.Y.

The first lady used the Collins promotion ceremony as the centerpiece of a renewed drive to focus public attention on the importance of science and math education. After the ceremony, Mrs. Clinton and Collins drove across town to Dunbar High School to talk to students.

``There are a lot of frontiers to explore″ for those willing to develop an expertise in science and technology, Mrs. Clinton told about 100 students in a Dunbar pre-engineering program.

One pupil asked Collins what academic grades it takes to become an astronaut.

``Grades are not the most important thing,″ Collins replied. ``We look at the whole-person concept,″ adding: ``Don’t worry too much about grades _ just do your best.″

On Thursday evening, the Clintons hosted a White House screening of an HBO series, produced by actor Tom Hanks, on America’s efforts to land men on the moon. The Clintons’ guests included Sen. John Glenn, scheduled to return to space next October on the shuttle Discovery, and several other former astronauts. They watched the hour-long fourth installment of the 12-part HBO series called ``From the Earth to the Moon.″

Also in attendance at the Collins promotion ceremony was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

``All kids need role models,″ Ride told reporters later. ``To be a commander of the space shuttle you need to have a background in space and science. That’s a message that will come through loud and clear in this, and I think it’s something that will help encourage the kids.″

In his remarks praising Collins, the president said she embodies the ``bold, restless pioneering spirit that″ enabled the U.S. space program to achieve its greatest successes.

Clinton cited test results released last month that showed American high school seniors scored below students from most other countries in an international test of math and science.

``That is unacceptable,″ Clinton said.

``I call on all young girls across America _ and their parents _ to take inspiration from Colonel Collins’ achievement,″ Clinton said. ``Let’s remember that at a time when very few girls were taking the hardest math and science courses, Colonel Collins was taking them and mastering them.″

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