The bad press over the "astronaut love triangle" has made this a rough month for the straight-arrow image that NASA's astronauts used to have. But if you're looking for an antidote to tabloid toxicity, one woman you could turn to is Eileen Collins, NASA's first woman shuttle commander.
The 50-year-old retired astronaut and Air Force colonel will receive the Colorado-based Space Foundation's Douglas S. Morrow Public Outreach Award on April 9, at the opening of the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
The award, which recognizes contributions toward increasing public awareness of and support for space exploration, is named after an Oscar-winning writer and producer who also happened to be a big space advocate. Past winners include actor/producer Tom Hanks, "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and the X Prize Foundation.
Collins is a veteran of four space shuttle flights - including visits to Russia's Mir space station in 1995 and 1997, a mission to deploy the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (which earned her an entry in the history books as NASA's first female mission commander) and 2005's first post-Columbia shuttle test mission. She retired from NASA last May, with the intent of making way for a new generation of space fliers and giving an outside boost to space exploration as well as math and science education.
So what's she been up to over the past year? In response to an e-mail inquiry, Collins sent along this update:
"I have been working on the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Operations Committee. I have also been doing quite a bit of public speaking. I had many speaking requests after my mission, which I was not able to fill due to my job duties. So when I retired from NASA, I began to fulfill more of those requests.
"Unfortunately, both my parents passed away in the last 15 months. So that has taken up huge amounts of my time. Although this is personal and does not apply to the space program, I feel I need to pass along this information because frankly, it is what I have been doing. Cleaning up their stuff! What a job!
"I also wanted to spend more time with my children, after the long hours and frequent trips while training for STS-114! They are 6 years and 11 years old."
As the love-triangle case makes its way through the courts, do you think astronauts will ever regain the type of public adulation seen during Collins' missions? Or have astronaut Lisa Nowak's misadventures dealt a permanent blow to the "Right Stuff" image? Feel free to leave your comments below.