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As Sally Ride prepared to make history as the first American woman in space, it should have been a time when science was celebrated.
But instead, a reporter asked a question that stunned Ride and his teammates.
“During your training exercises as a member of this group, when there was a problem, when there was a funny glitch or whatever, how did you respond?” she asked. “How did you take it as a human being? You cry? What are you doing?”
Race deflected diplomatically, noting that one of her male teammates had never been asked that question.
The exchange during a press conference just weeks before the launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 is one of many fascinating and embarrassing scenes unearthed and detailed by author Loren Grush in her new book, “The Six: The Untold Stories of America’s First Women Astronauts”. “
Grush said that, like many Americans, she grew up knowing Ride’s name and her historic achievement. But the reporter began to wonder about the other women who had trained alongside Ride in NASA’s first co-ed astronaut course. Those women – all formidable and accomplished in their own right – had also competed for the chance to be on that same historic shuttle flight.
In Grush’s book, out Tuesday, Ride’s selection for this historic trip becomes a starting point for an even deeper story about the U.S. space agency’s first female astronauts, including what happened on their first flights, the pressures they faced at work and the barrage of sexist questions they fielded along the way.
“I’m trying to tell their story in a way that … should have been told at the time,” said Grush, a journalist covering the space for Bloomberg.
He recently spoke with CNN about the book and why the stories it explores still resonate decades later.
A damning report exposed NASA’s lack of diversity
In the early 1970s, a damning report – cited in Grush’s book – denounced the lack of diversity within NASA’s ranks.
“There have been three females sent into space by NASA,” the report states. “Two are Arabella and Anita, both spiders. The other is Miss Baker, a monkey.
A co-author of that report, Ruth Bates Harris, was fired from the agency because she was deemed a “disruptive force,” Grush writes, though she was later rehired after political backlash. It took about a decade for a longer list of names – all human – to replenish the ranks of women sent into space by NASA, thanks to a major recruiting effort.
“We had the civil rights movement. We had the feminist movement. It was just something NASA could no longer ignore,” Grush said.
More than 1,500 women applied to become astronauts between 1976 and 1977, Grush writes.
Eventually, that group was whittled down to six.
The “Six” had more in common like that
The “Six” became part of NASA Astronaut Group 8, a selection of 35 candidates chosen to begin training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1978. And the women weren’t the only ones making history. The class of astronauts in training was also NASA’s first to include people of color: three African-Americans and one Asian-American.
Ride was an astrophysicist. The other women in the class were electrical engineer Judy Resnik, geologist and oceanographer Kathy Sullivan, biochemist Shannon Lucid, and doctors Anna Fisher and Rhea Seddon.
They had something remarkable in common: None of them had been trained to fly jets, although Resnik, Lucid, and Seddon had some piloting experience. The Space Shuttle program had added the new role of “mission specialist,” which required no flight experience. “NASA has been able to open up the criteria to people like scientists and doctors. … This allowed not only women and people of color, but more people from diverse backgrounds to join the program,” Grush said.
Decades later, some questions asked by journalists are shocking to read
The 1983 question from a reporter who asked Ride about crying during training was in line with the comments of many journalists at the time, and that perspective was also echoed in descriptions of the Six in printed and broadcast accounts.
“When introducing women on TV, an anchor would read their names one by one, followed by each woman’s marital status and underlining those who were single,” Grush writes. “Various articles referred to them as ‘girls’ or ‘ladies in space,’ and diligent writers stressed the importance of including their ages, heights, and weights in their descriptions.”
In a television interview cited in the book, NBC’s Tom Brokaw asked Resnik, “Do you think there will come a time when there will be romance in space?”
As part of his research, Grush said he not only read transcripts of press briefings, but obtained footage through Freedom of Information Act requests.
“Watching the video is even worse than listening to or reading the transcript, because you can see Sally’s face as she answers these crazy questions about crying in the simulator or whether she wanted to be the first mother in space,” Grush said. “The media really encapsulated what the feelings were at the time and just the kind of pressure that the Six were under.”
A “counterintuitively attractive” detail about Sally Ride has caught attention
While a committee chose the class of astronauts, their Space Shuttle assignments depended largely on one man: George Abbey, NASA’s director of flight operations at the time.
Abbey was convinced that Ride was the right person for the mission that would send the first American woman into space. But at first the director of the space center, who ultimately had to give the green light to the choice, did not agree.
So to make his case, Grush writes, Abbey met with key players, including Bob Crippen, whom he had tapped to be the commander of the historic seventh Space Shuttle flight.
Crippen and Abbey, Grush writes, believed that in addition to Ride’s many skills, his ability to work under pressure, and his ability to get along with other crew members, the astrophysicist possessed a trait that was “counterintuitively attractive”.
“Being an introvert, Sally wasn’t exactly the type to do that look for the spotlight or fame. And both men agreed that such a personality might be a better fit for being The One,” Grush writes. “They didn’t want to cast someone who craved attention too much.”
Ultimately, Abbey made a spreadsheet comparing the women, with an X indicating each of their abilities. Ride edged out the competition with an extra X on the grid, “indicating that it had a better understanding of more systems than the other two frontrunners,” Grush said. Added to this is her skill with the robotic arm, something that would be essential to the mission. “This,” Grush writes, “sealed the deal.”
Because the experiences of these astronauts resonate today
While Ride was first, each member of the Six eventually flew on a space shuttle. In his book, Grush recounts their travels, including the 1986 Challenger disaster that killed Resnik during his second Space Shuttle flight.
The stories of the Six are significant in any era, but Grush says there are especially important lessons to be learned today from what Ride and his colleagues experienced.
“NASA is currently trying to return to the moon with its Artemis program. And one of the stated goals for that program is to send the first woman to the lunar surface. And so I think it’s just a timely reminder of what women have had to go through before, and also how they’ve been tragically left out of the program for many years,” Grush said. “Hopefully, when we return to the Moon with women in close-up, they will have a much easier time having fun than the prima donnas in the 70s and 80s.”
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