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As Sally Ride prepared to make history as the first American woman in space, it should have been a moment when science was celebrated.
But instead, a reporter asked a question that stunned Ride and her crewmates.
“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?” he asked. “How did you take it as a human being? Do you, do you weep? What do you do?”
Ride deflected diplomatically, noting that one of her male crewmates had never been asked that question.
The exchange from a news conference just a few weeks before NASA’s 1983 space shuttle Challenger launch is one of many fascinating and cringeworthy 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 accomplishment. But the journalist started wondering about the other women who had trained alongside Ride in NASA’s first coed astronaut class. Those women — all formidable and accomplished in their own right — had also vied for a chance to be on that same historic shuttle flight.
In Grush’s book, out Tuesday, Ride’s selection for the landmark voyage becomes a jumping-off point for an even deeper story about the US space agency’s first women astronauts, including what happened during their first flights, the pressures they faced on the job, and the barrage of sexist questions they fielded along the way.
“I’m trying to tell their story in a way that … it should have been told at the time,” said Grush, a reporter who covers space for Bloomberg.
She spoke with CNN recently about the book, and why the stories it explores still resonate decades later.
A damning report called out NASA’s lack of diversity
In the early 1970s, a damning report — quoted in Grush’s book — slammed the lack of diversity in NASA’s ranks.
“There have been three females sent into space by NASA,” the report said. “Two are Arabella and Anita — both spiders. The other is Miss Baker — a monkey.”
A coauthor of that report, Ruth Bates Harris, was fired from the agency for being a “disruptive force,” Grush writes, though she was later rehired after political blowback. It took about a decade for a longer list of names — all humans — to jump-start 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 that NASA couldn’t ignore anymore,” Grush said.
More than 1,500 women applied to become astronauts between 1976 and 1977, Grush writes.
Eventually, that group was winnowed down to six.
‘The Six’ shared more in common than their gender
“The Six” became part of NASA Astronaut Group 8, a selection of 35 candidates tapped to begin training at 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 shared something notable in common: None of them had been trained to fly jets, though Resnik, Lucid and Seddon had some piloting experience. The space shuttle program had added the new role of “mission specialist,” which didn’t require flying experience. “NASA was able to open up the criteria to people like scientists and doctors. … So that allowed for, not just women and people of color, but more people with different backgrounds to join the program,” Grush said.
Decades later, some questions reporters asked them are shocking to read
The 1983 question from a reporter who asked Ride about weeping during training was in keeping with comments from many journalists at the time, and that perspective also echoed in descriptions of The Six in print and broadcast reports.
“When introducing the women on TV, one anchor read off their names one by one, followed by each woman’s marital status and emphasizing the ones who were single,” Grush writes. “Various articles referred to them as ‘girls’ or ‘ladies in space,’ and diligent writers made a point to include ages, heights and weights in their descriptions.”
In a TV interview cited in the book, NBC’s Tom Brokaw asked Resnik, “Do you think the time will come when there will be romance in outer space?”
As part of her research, Grush said she not only read transcripts of press briefings but obtained footage through Freedom of Information Act requests.
“Watching the video is even worse than hearing or reading the transcript, because you can see Sally’s face when she’s answering these asinine questions about weeping in the simulator or whether she wanted to be the first mother in space,” Grush said. “The media really encapsulated what the sentiments were at the time and just the kind of pressure (The Six) were under.”
A ‘counterintuitively appealing’ detail about Sally Ride drew attention
While a committee picked the class of astronauts, their space shuttle assignments largely came down to one man: George Abbey, NASA’s director of flight operations at the time.
Abbey was convinced Ride was the right person for the mission that would send the first American woman into space. But at first, the space center director, who ultimately had to green-light the choice, didn’t agree.
So to build his case, Grush writes, Abbey met with key players, including Bob Crippen, who he had tapped to be the commander of the historic seventh space shuttle flight.
Crippen and Abbey, Grush writes, felt that in addition to Ride’s many skills, her ability to work under pressure and her ability to get along with others on the crew, the astrophysicist possessed a trait that was “counterintuitively appealing.”
“As an introvert, Sally wasn’t exactly one to seek the spotlight or fame. And both men agreed that such a personality might fit best with being The One,” Grush writes. “They didn’t want to choose someone who wanted the attention too badly.”
In the end, Abbey made a spreadsheet comparing the women, with an X marking each of their skills. Ride edged out her competition with one more X on the grid, “indicating she had a better understanding of more systems than the other two front-runners,” Grush said. Add to that her skill with the robotic arm, something that would be essential for the mission. “That,” Grush writes, “sealed the deal.”
Why these astronauts’ experiences resonate today
While Ride was first, ultimately every member of The Six flew on a space shuttle. In her book, Grush chronicles their journeys, including the 1986 Challenger disaster that killed Resnik on her second space shuttle flight.
The stories of The Six are significant in any era, but Grush says there are particularly important lessons to be learned today from what Ride and her peers experienced.
“NASA’s currently looking to go back 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 did have to deal with before, and also how they were tragically excluded from the program for many years,” Grush said. “Hopefully, as we go back to the moon with women, top of mind, they’ll have a much easier time of it than the first women in the ’70s and ’80s did.”
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Daisy Hips is a science communicator who brings the wonders of the natural world to readers. Her articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to environmental conservation. Daisy is also an advocate for science education and enjoys stargazing in her spare time.