Space Lectures event with Colonel Eileen Collins, Pontefract. April 2015.
Once more Mr Norfolkbookworm and I did battle with the road network linking Norfolk to Yorkshire for the chance to meet another astronaut. Unlike previous events this one was with a much more recent space flier and indeed the first female Space Shuttle pilot, and later commander.
For me this was as exciting as meeting the Apollo era astronauts. I'm a child of the shuttle era and did see the launch of STS-123 in March 2008. Sadly this wasn't Col. Collins' flight but the experience will stay with me forever.
We went to the dinner on the Friday night and this was a nice chance to catch up with the people we've met at other events and to help fund raise for more events in the future but the really exciting thing for me is the Saturday lecture.
We were spoiled this time as Col. Collins talked for well over an hour, mainly about her flight as the commander of the first space flight after the Columbia accident. The talk, and I can't call it a lecture because despite an audience of 300+ it did just feel like a cosy chat, included photos, videos and anecdotes. It was pitched just right for the audience with it being neither too technical nor too basic.
After the talk there was a chance for audience questions and again I was impressed with the thoroughness and honesty of the answers given. Space sickness is often dismissed by astronauts but Collins admitted to 'stomach awareness' on her first flight and that she took medication to avoid this on her subsequent one.
I was lucky enough to ask a questions and it was along the lines of will there ever be an all female crew, and if it would be a good idea. The answer was that there certainly is no reason why there shouldn't be (and that the female astronauts did play 'fantasy crews' where they made them all female) but that personally Collins would not want to be part of it. Her reasons were two fold - she wouldn't want the media pressure that such an event would generate and also the fact that if anything (however small) went wrong it would always be blamed on the sex of the crew.
This last point was illustrated with an story from Collins' first flight - on which she was the pilot - a booster returned to earth after being jettisoned from the External Tank and hit a wave wrong as it splashed down which damaged it. Although this had nothing at all to do with anything that anyone on the Shuttle could have done it was still jokingly put down to having a woman driver.
Now I am sure that this was just lighthearted banter but for me it highlights just how far women still have to come in every field of work. Again I appreciated Collins' honest answer.
After the talk we waited to get Collin's autograph and now I have another cherished piece of space memorabilia as Eileen Collins signed my own photo of a space shuttle launch.
(this is an edited photo of a photo hence the poor quality)
We'll be back in Pontefract in October as Jim Lovell of Apollo 8 and 13 fame will be the guest speaker, but before then we've also got tickets to meet Alexi Leonov - the first man to complete a space walk. It is shaping up to be another out of this world year!