First female shuttle commander to speak at GOP convention

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WASHINGTON — Former NASA astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, is slated to speak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next week, according to the speaker roster  organizers unveiled July 15.

Collins, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who has publicly criticized the way the Obama administration canceled NASA’s Constellation return-to-the-moon program, is scheduled to speak July 20, the day before  Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee, is due to give his acceptance speech.

Collins became NASA’s first female shuttle pilot in 1995 and the first woman to command a shuttle mission in 1997. NASA also gave Collins command of STS-114, the July 2005 mission that marked the shuttle’s return-to-flight following the Columbia accident two years earlier.

Collins has maintained a fairly low profile since leaving the agency in 2006. She describes herself on her LinkedIn profile as a professional speaker and aerospace consultant who serves on several boards and advisory panels.

In February, she testified at a House Science Committee hearing on long-shot legislation that aims to restructure NASA’s management by, in part, creating a board of directors to choose a NASA administrator who would be given a 10-year term. Currently, NASA administrators are nominated by the White House, confirmed by the Senate and serve at the pleasure of the president.

Testifying alongside former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin — a Bush administration appointee who stepped down when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009 — Collins told the committee she and NASA colleagues were “shocked” by the administration’s 2010 decision to cancel Constellation, saying the timing of the decision, so close to the shuttle’s 2011 retirement, left the agency with few options.

“I believe program cancellation decisions that are made by bureaucracies behind closed doors, without input by the people, are divisive, damaging, cowardly and many times more expensive in the long run,” she testified.

Obama’s April 2010 decision to cancel Constellation and direct NASA to send its Orion crew exploration vehicle to an asteroid instead of the Moon followed months of public debate about the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program by a presidential commission. That commission, led by former Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO Norman Augustine, concluded that Constellation was unsustainable and should at least be revamped.

Collins is not the convention’s only scheduled speaker with a space policy track record. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Trump’s formal rival for the GOP nomination, chairs the Senate Commerce space submitted, which on July 13  held its first NASA-related hearing in more than a year.

Former House Speaker New Gingrich, once said to be on Trump’s short list of potential running mates, pledged during his 2012 run for the GOP nomination to build a lunar base if elected president.

Also scheduled to speak in Cleveland is Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal with Elon Musk and was one of SpaceX’s early investors.