Ireland, part of the European Space Agency, does not have its own space program. But it sure can lay claim to some of the most famous and accomplished astronauts, of history and today.
The first man to walk on the moon was proud of his Ulster heritage. Armstrong, who was Mission Commander of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 and spent two-and-a-half hours exploring the surface of the moon with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, had roots in Co. Fermanagh.
He first visited Ireland in 1997 to open an exhibition about space exploration in the Kerry County Museum, and returned in 2003 to be interviewed by Gay Byrne at the National Concert Hall, and again in 2006. He once told David Moore, the head of Astronomy Ireland, that he was descended from a family of cattle rustlers in Fermanagh.
Born and raised in Ohio, Armstrong was also of Scottish and German descent. Prior to joining NASA he served in the U.S. Navy and Air Force. Armstrong died in 2012; there were widespread tributes throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland.
With the same name as one of Ireland’s most beloved heroes, Michael Collins the astronaut is another highly admired figure. Collins was born in Rome in 1931, the son of a US Army Major General stationed there. Collins, an Air Force pilot, was admitted to NASA in 1963 – his second time applying to become an astronaut.
Collins flew two space missions: Gemini 10 in 1966, during which he performed a space walk, and the famous Apollo 11, during which he kept the Command Module in orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.
His Irish roots can be traced to the town of Dunmanway in Co. Cork, from which his grandfather, Jeremiah Collins, emigrated in the 1860s. Collins appeared multiple times in our sister publication Irish America magazine’s Top 100, with he and his wife, Patricia Finnegan, attending the awards ceremony.
While the first American to orbit the Earth was primarily of Scottish heritage, he also had an ancestor who emigrated from Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1768. John Glenn was born in Ohio in 1921. He was a pilot in WWII and the Korean War, and then worked as a test pilot. In 1958 he became one of (then newly-formed) NASA’s first recruits. In 1962 he flew the Friendship 7 mission and became the first American to orbit the Earth, which brought him fame and acclaim. Today he is the last surviving member of the crew.
A close friend of the Kennedys, Glenn was deeply affected by JFK’s assassination and began to consider a career in politics. He retired from NASA a few weeks after Kennedy’s assassination, and in 1965 retired from the military to run for office in his home state of Ohio. He served as senator from 1974 – 1999.
RTE has footage of Glenn’s visit to Limerick in 1968.
The daughter of two Irish immigrants from County Cork, Collins made history in 1995 as the first female NASA pilot and commander of a space shuttle. Collins was born in Elmira, NY in 1956, to James and Rose Marie Collins.
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1978, she trained as a pilot at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. In 1989, she became the second woman ever to attend the US Air Force Test Pilot School, and was then selected for the astronaut program in 1990.
Collins was confirmed as a pilot in 1992, and in 1995 flew the STS-63, which helped coordinate a transfer between the space shuttle Discovery and the Mir space station. She was the pilot for STS-84, in 1997, and in July 1999 made history as the commander of STS-93. In 2005 she commanded NASA’s STS-114, which brought supplies to the International Space Station. During this mission, Collins became the first person ever to guide a space shuttle through a 360-degree pitch maneuver in space. Collins retired from NASA in 2006.
She married a fellow pilot, Pat Youngs, with whom she has two children. Collins has appeared many times in our sister publication Irish America magazine’s Top 100, and even graced the cover.
Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan