“For All Womankind”: America’s First Female Astronauts

Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, pauses to gaze through Challenger's flight deck windows on STS-7. Photo Credit: NASA.

Three decades ago, in April 1982, a 30-year-old female scientist was given the most electrifying news of her career. Sally Kristen Ride, a civilian physics PhD from Stanford University, had been chosen, six years earlier, as one of NASA’s first six women astronauts and throughout that time, each of them had privately wondered which of them would be first to fly into space. Many of them suspected that Ride and another astronaut, engineer Judy Resnik, had the edge, on account of the technical duties they had been assigned, and, indeed, this pair went on to become America’s first two women space voyagers. But for the others – physicians Anna Fisher and Rhea Seddon, geologist Kathy Sullivan and biochemist Shannon Lucid – there would also be exciting missions to come.

Sally Ride received her news from George Abbey, head of Flight Crew Operations, and also recalled a conversation with the legendary Chris Kraft, director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who assured her that her needs – she would, after all, be thrust abruptly into the public eye – would be looked after. It was obvious that from the day of her assignment to the STS-7 mission, Ride would become an icon. “As the first American woman in space,” wrote her contemporary Mike Mullane in his memoir, Riding Rockets, “she could look forward to book deals, speech honorariums, corporate board seats and consulting fees that could earn her millions.” Perhaps Mullane’s words of financial gain and lasting fame are a little unfair, for the real honour, surely, was a seat on a space mission; a seat which, even today, relatively few have had the chance to experience.

Of Norwegian ancestry, Ride came from Los Angeles, born on 26 May 1951. In her youth, she aspired to become a professional tennis player and, for a time at Westlake High School, was captain of the team. After graduation from Westlake, she entered Stanford to study physics and English. Whilst there, Billie Jean King watched her play tennis and advised Ride to leave college and turn professional. The young woman rejected King’s advice and continued her studies; it is interesting that, since her astronaut days, Ride has become an outspoken advocate for getting more women involved in science and engineering. She received her degree in 1973, a master’s credential in 1975 and her doctorate in astrophysics and free electron laser physics in 1978, only days – hours, even – before she drove to Houston to commence astronaut training.

“I saw an ad in the Stanford University student newspaper…that NASA was accepting applications,” Ride told the agency’s oral historian. “They wanted applications from women, which is presumably the reason the Center for Research on Women [at Stanford] was contacted and the reason they offered to place the ad in the newspaper.” Early in October 1977, the 26-year-old Ride was called to Houston as part of a group of 20 candidates. “It was a group I’d never met before,” she said, “and I didn’t meet any of the other 180 who were interviewed. The only ones I met were the ones in my little group of 20. We spent a week going from briefing to briefing, from dinner to medical evaluations, psychological exams and individual interviews with the astronaut selection committee.”

Selected in January 1978, Ride’s recollection was that the media attention at becoming one of six female astronaut candidates was intense. “The impact started before I left for Houston,” she remembered. “There was a lot of attention surrounding the announcement, because not only was it the first astronaut selection in nearly ten years, it was the first time that women were part of a class. There was a lot of press attention surrounding all six of us. Stanford arranged a press conference for me on the day of the announcement! I was a PhD physics student. Press conferences were not a normal part of my day! A lot of newspaper and magazine articles were written, primarily about the women in the group, even before we arrived. The media attention settled down quite a bit once we got to Houston. There were still the occasional stories and we definitely found ourselves being sent on plenty of public appearances.”

Commander Bob Crippen (left), pilot Rick Hauck (centre) and Sally Ride (right, in the flight engineer's seat) are pictured during STS-7 training. The four male members of this crew would fade into the shadows in the public eye. The media was interested only in Ride. Photo Credit: NASA.

The pressure on NASA to select female astronauts was strong and, in Deke Slayton’s words, “there was some last-minute political bullshit”. This appeared to centre on the fact that only one woman originally made the space agency’s final cut and five pilots had to be dropped in favour of five female mission specialists. “They got selected a couple of years later,” Slayton said of the pilots and, indeed, six pilots who reached the semi-final stage were chosen in 1980. The identity of the ‘one woman’ has never been divulged, but whatever the truth the incident underlines the importance that NASA placed in its image and its need to hire an astronaut class which truly represented the depth and breadth of America.

Three months after her assignment to STS-7, in July 1982, Sally Ride married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley; the ceremony was officiated by Hawley’s minister father, Dr Bernard Hawley, and Ride’s sister, the Reverend Karen Scott. Their marriage would endure for five years, until the couple divorced in the summer of 1987, and during that span Ride would fly twice, operating the Shuttle’s robotic arm on both STS-7 and 41G to deploy major scientific payloads. Had Challenger not been lost, she would have flown again on Mission 61M in July 1986 to deploy NASA’s third Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. In the weeks after Challenger, Ride’s mission changed markedly, when she became a key member of the presidential commission into the disaster, chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers. A year later, she led a team which charted possible future roadmaps for NASA and, to this day, Ride remains a devoted advocate not only for women in science and technology, but also for the space programme.

A handful of astronauts have described Ride as outspokenly ‘feminist’ in her views – particularly Mike Mullane – and if that was indeed the case, then the second American woman in space was quite the reverse. In fact, when Judith Arlene Resnik was named in February 1983 to the crew of STS-12, she revealed her humour during a visit to Boeing’s plant in Seattle, Washington, to learn the intricacies of the Inertial Upper Stage booster. “At the contractors’ factories, we did some ‘widows and orphans’ appearances,” wrote Mullane, referring to NASA’s deliberate attempt to present a human face on manned space exploration and hence raise awareness of the deadly consequences of mistakes, “passing out ‘Maiden Voyage of Discovery’ safety posters to the workers.” In response to the posters, Resnik joked that there were certainly no maidens on her mission…

In Riding Rockets, Resnik is presented as a tragi-comic figure – tragic in terms of her estrangement from her mother and, of course, her untimely death aboard Challenger, but intensely witty in her interactions with others; her romantic crush on actor Tom Selleck became the stuff of banter among fellow astronauts. “Flirtatious, funny…just a live wire,” was classmate Rhea Seddon’s summary of her. Yet she was an outstanding over-achiever. Born in Akron, Ohio, on 5 April 1949, she was the progeny of a first-generation Jewish-Russian family. Her father, Marvin, was an optometrist and part-time cantor, whilst her mother, Sarah, was a former legal secretary. Soon after entering kindergarten, Resnik was able to read and solve simple mathematical problems. She and her younger brother, Charles, received Hebrew schooling and her teachers described as a bright, disciplined perfectionist.

Judy Resnik's humour comes as much to life as her raven tresses in this image from Mission 41D. She proudly displays a handwritten note to her beloved father...whilst, behind her, is her dedication to another man close to her heart: actor Tom Selleck. Photo Credit: NASA.

It was whilst at school that she developed her love for mathematics and classical piano. She achieved the highest possible score – 800 – on the mathematics component of her SAT test, graduated from Firestone High School in Akron in 1966 and was accepted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology to study electrical engineering. (By the time she completed her degree in 1970, the institute had been renamed ‘Carnegie-Mellon University’.) She was initially hesitant about entering engineering, since it was not traditionally a female career path, but realised that her aptitude for mathematics and the sciences would carry her through. “Maybe I liked it,” she once said, “because I was good in it.” Shortly after graduation, she married a fellow engineering student, Michael Oldak, but the pair divorced in 1974.

During her short married life, she was employed by RCA, working on custom integrated circuitry for phased-array radar control systems and the specification, project management and evaluation of control systems. She also undertook work for NASA sounding rocket and telemetry programmes. Resnik later joined the National Institutes of Health as a biomedical engineer and staff fellow, working in the neurophysiology laboratory in Bethesda, Maryland, and at the same time commenced work on her doctorate in electrical engineering. She received her PhD from the University of Maryland in 1977 and joined Xerox as a senior systems engineer.

In Riding Rockets, Mike Mullane noted that Resnik’s first exposure to the space programme and the idea of becoming an astronaut appeared that same year, when she first saw an announcement on the Xerox bulletin board. To Mullane, it underlined the reality that many women had grown up in society, totally closeted and unaware of the possibility that such careers were available, on the basis of gender or colour. In fact, one of the recruiters who drew Resnik to NASA was the African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, famed for her role alongside William Shatner in ‘Star Trek’. Nichols began by affiliating her company, Women in Motion, with the space agency, although its focus extended to ethnic minorities, too, and led to the selection of Resnik and Sally Ride, Guy Bluford and Ron McNair and inspired a number of others, including Mae Jemison, who in 1992 became the first black American woman in space.

When Resnik was selected as one of the first six female astronauts in January 1978, it was widely expected that either she or Sally Ride would be the first to fly. In fact, Rhea Seddon remarked in her oral history that Resnik and Ride received “the sorts of technical assignments that really prepared them for flight”, such as robot arm work and capcom duties. “I think most of us felt it would be Sally or Judy.” To Resnik, as one of the crew members for what became Mission 41D, it mattered little. Being a woman astronaut or the second American woman astronaut or the first Jewish woman astronaut was as insignificant as saying that she was “the 40th or 45th…American astronaut to go on the Space Shuttle in a period of a couple of years”. Resnik was simply amazed at how far the space programme had evolved in just a handful of years.

Resnik’s first flight, in August 1984, left her buzzing for future opportunities and, indeed, she was quickly reassigned in January of the following year to Mission 51L. Originally scheduled for November 1985, the flight was repeatedly postponed and had its payload, orbiter – Atlantis and Challenger were attached to the mission for a time – and payload specialist crew members moved around like chess pieces on a board. Eventually, by the early autumn of 1985, Resnik’s crew had solidified into one that would make history: with school teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, Mission 51L would be one of the most high-profile Shuttle flights ever undertaken. As circumstances would transpire, the mission was indeed high-profile, but for entirely the wrong reasons, and today Resnik’s name is honoured as one of those who fell whilst answering a noble call of duty. As President Ronald Reagan said at the 51L memorial, shortly after the disaster: “The Challenger crew was putting us into the future…and we will continue to follow them.”

Mission 41D would mark Judy Resnik's only successful space mission, yet her contributions to space exploration and pushing the boundaries for women astronauts are her inspiring legacy. Photo Credit: NASA.

In yesterday’s Uncommon Ability, Uncommon Goal story, it was noted that after important ‘historic’ milestones have been surpassed – the ‘firsts’ – it is then equally important for them to be achieved on a more commonplace basis. One historic milestone accomplished by the third American woman in space, Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan, should have been the accolade of becoming the first female spacewalker. Unfortunately, as tomorrow’s story about Svetlana Savitskaya will illustrate, the Soviet Union would pip NASA to the post and Sullivan would become the first American female spacewalker, as opposed to the first in the world.

Speaking to New York Times writer Henry S.F. Cooper Jr, the no-nonsense Sullivan admitted that she could not care less that the Soviets had cynically beaten her to it by sending Savitskaya on an EVA, but admired her counterpart’s abilities. Like Sally Ride before her, Sullivan considered herself an astronaut first, and a female astronaut a distant second. She was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on 3 October 1951, although her family moved to California when she was six years old and she attended Californian schools, finally entering the University of California at Santa Cruz to study Earth sciences. Whilst there, she spent a year as an exchange student at the University of Bergen in Norway. Sullivan received her undergraduate degree in 1973 and a doctorate in geology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1978. Her PhD research focused on remote sensing of the seafloor in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Newfoundland Basin and fault zones off the coast of southern California using acoustic and geophysical instruments.

When NASA issued its call for astronaut candidates, Sullivan applied, but she also had an offer of a post-doctoral position in deep-sea marine geology, using the Alvin submersible. “Two fabulous things were in front of me,” she recalled, “either of which just seemed tremendous things to get to be involved in. It made my mother a little crazy that I was either going to 10,000 feet down in the ocean or 200 miles up, off the planet!” She was summoned to Houston for interview and then accepted into the astronaut corps. By the late summer of 1983, having worked on the development of new Shuttle space suits, her assignment to STS-17 (later Mission 41G) as an EVA crew member came as a great pleasure…but for one thing: Dave Leestma – a junior astronaut from the class selected two years after Sullivan’s own – would be EV1, the chief spacewalker, whilst Sullivan would be EV2.

In Pad 39A's white room, Kathy Sullivan (left) and Sally Ride synchronise watches before boarding Challenger for Mission 41G. Photo Credit: NASA.

“I’m a class senior to Dave,” she told the NASA oral historian. “I’ve been in the programme longer than Dave. I’ve worked in the suits more than Dave. I worked this payload longer than Dave did, and I’m number two to him on the spacewalk. That’s really bad optics.” She had nothing against Leestma and, intuitively, Sullivan knew that George Abbey and 41G commander Bob Crippen had faith in her abilities, but she was still perplexed that an organisation in which “class rank matters” and “the senior class guy leads” was apparently changing position. The EV1/EV2 debate was not lost on the media, either, and several awkward questions were directed at both Sullivan and Crippen during this period. “Don’t be asking me to answer this,” Sullivan told Crippen, paraphrased from her oral history, “because I don’t see any particularly good reason I’m not EV1, but it’s your call.”

Another significant element of Mission 41G was that the crew also included Sally Ride, becoming the first American woman to fly a second time…yet also losing out to Svetlana Savitskaya on this accolade, too. Privately, Sullivan felt that one of the primary focuses of the media was the fact that 41G would be Ride’s second mission. “In the early press stuff, it was very much slanted that way,” she recalled. “Sally was still right in the bull’s-eye of all the media interest. The flight was announced…about five or six months after her first landing, so there’s still a flood of interest surrounding her.” No one seemed interested in Sullivan, only Ride. Sullivan even went so far as to have a new name tag made for her flight suit, reading Sally, but with a bar through it. “Evidently, what I am is not Sally,” she reasoned. “Can’t help that. Sally was less than thrilled with that line of teasing.”

Years later, Sullivan found it amusing that so much attention was given to the precise duration of her October 1984 EVA; since Savitskaya had beaten her to it, there were some within NASA who wanted the 41G spacewalk to last a few minutes longer. In Sullivan’s mind, this was absurd. “The EVA flight team was actually watching the duration clock very carefully,” she said, “and was very mindful of where we were relative to Svetlana’s time…I think our duration was 3:29 and hers was 3:34, so it was a five- or six-minute difference, and in the wrong direction, as far as they were concerned. That was the melodrama around the spacewalk and spacewalking records.” In time, Sullivan would surpass Savitskaya: after flying the Hubble Space Telescope mission in April 1990 – a flight which almost made her the first woman to make two EVAs – she took part in a third mission in March 1992. When she landed from her final flight, Sullivan narrowly passed fellow classmate Shannon Lucid as the most experienced woman astronaut, with 22 days in orbit.

In October 1984, during Mission 41G, Kathy Sullivan became the first American woman to walk in space. Photo Credit: NASA.

Another record was set barely a month after Sullivan’s 41G spacewalk, when Anna Fisher became the fourth American woman astronaut…and the first mother to fly into orbit. This last notable was something that even the indomitable Savitskaya – who became a mother in late 1986 – had not done. On Mission 51A, during which two stranded communications satellites were retrieved and brought back to Earth, Fisher operated the Shuttle’s robot arm to manoeuvre spacewalkers Joe Allen and Dale Gardner. Her work inside the cockpit meant that she trained extensively with commander Rick Hauck and pilot Dave Walker. Their time together provided a breeding ground for some banter.

During training for ‘transatlantic aborts’, simulating an engine failure, late in the ascent, that necessitated an emergency landing in North Africa, Walker would jokingly offer to trade Fisher for camels in exchange for the rest of them getting out. “Nowadays,” Fisher told the NASA oral historian, “people would think that’s probably not very politically correct. Then, Dave gave me this neat collection…of camels; all different kinds. These are guys who are trained in a different area. They were pilots in Vietnam. They saw all kinds of things. I’d gone to medical school. In histology class as they were doing their slide lectures, they would stick in Playboy centrefolds. It’s just a way of breaking the ice.”

Born Anna Lee Sims (the maiden name under which she would register for her astronaut interview) in New York on 24 August 1949, her father was a military man and the family moved frequently, eventually settling in California, where she attended San Pedro High School. A lifelong interest in science and mathematics eventually inspired her to enter the University of California at Los Angeles to study chemistry, although by this time she had done voluntary work in Harbor General Hospital in Torrance and after gaining her degree in 1971 she started graduate work in X-ray crystallography, but opted to change direction and enter medical school. She received her doctorate in 1976 and interned at Harbor General Hospital, then specialised in emergency medicine, practicing in Los Angeles.

By this time, she was engaged to another young physician, Bill Fisher, and it was a mutual medical friend, Dr Mark Mecikalski, who first noticed NASA’s call for astronaut candidates and encouraged them both to apply. Emergency medicine was tough, as she recalled. “Bill was probably working ten 24-hour shifts a month and I was working probably eight 24-hour shifts,” she told the oral historian, “which is really gruelling.” As August 1977 drew to a close, whilst planning their wedding, she received a call from NASA, inviting her to interview on the 29th. They married quickly at the brick-and-glass Wayfarer’s Chapel in San Pedro and the new ‘Mrs’ Anna Fisher went to Houston for the interview. Bill Fisher was interviewed in November.

When the announcement was made, she was selected and he was not. “We had both talked about it,” she recalled, “and said that if either of us got selected, I probably had the greater opportunity, because I also had the background in chemistry. At the time, they were really looking for people that had a background in two areas. Bill didn’t have that.” He was selected in the next astronaut class, in May 1980, provoking a great deal of media attention; in fact, even the NASA news release mentioned him specifically by name as “the husband” of Anna Fisher. By the early summer 1983, she was pregnant with her first child and was surprised when she and Bill were both called into George Abbey’s office. “He said he wanted to assign me to a flight,” she told the oral historian. “Did we have any reservations? I’m probably the only person who’s been assigned to their flight about two weeks before they deliver!” Within six months of her daughter’s arrival, Fisher was working feverishly, around-the-clock, to prepare for her first mission into orbit.

On Mission 51A, Anna Fisher became the first mother to venture into space. She is pictured here with her husband Bill Fisher and daughter Kristen in August 1983. Photo Credit: NASA.

It would also be her only mission into orbit. Assigned in mid-1985 to Mission 61H, scheduled for June 1986, her second flight was indefinitely postponed by the Challenger accident. She participated with most of her 61H crewmates in a long-duration, 56-hour run in the Houston simulator in early 1987 and might have been assigned to STS-29, but for her pregnancy with her second child. Fisher took leave of absence from NASA in 1989 and, despite returning to the astronaut office in 1996, she never received another flight assignment. During her ‘second’ NASA career, she has supported the International Space Station from the ground and much Internet chatter has speculated on when, or if, she might fly again. Transferred to management duties within the office, it is the opinion of most observers that her spaceflying career is over. Yet Fisher does have one final credit to her name. With the retirement of Shannon Lucid, last month, Fisher is now the only member of the 1978 class – and the only one of its woman astronauts – still formally attached to the astronaut office.

The fifth American woman in space was Margaret Rhea Seddon, who should actually have been the third, but for delays and cancellations to her scheduled flight. Originally assigned to Mission 41F, she was scheduled to fly Discovery in August 1984 to deploy a pair of communications satellites and the Spartan solar observatory. Unfortunately, an on-the-pad shutdown of Discovery’s three main engines on 26 June threw the entire Shuttle manifest into disarray…and Seddon’s flight was scrubbed. She and her crewmates were reassigned to another mission, 51E, in the spring of 1985. That mission would deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, but was itself cancelled, days before launch – with Challenger already on the pad, primed and ready to go – when an issue was discovered with the payload. Eventually Seddon’s crew made it into orbit on Mission 51D on 12 April 1985. Their flight made history in that the failure of one of its satellites required a contingency EVA and Seddon attempted – unsuccessfully – to activate a deployment switch with a makeshift flyswatter.

Her other responsibilities on the flight were primarily medical in nature, which was unsurprising, since Seddon was a qualified physician and surgeon and had already been named as a crew member on the Spacelab-4 flight, a dedicated life sciences mission. She was born in Murfreesboro in Tennessee on 8 November 1947, the daughter of an attorney, and developed an early love for the sciences, graduating from Central High School and entering the University of California at Berkeley to study physiology. At Berkeley, she encountered the Free Speech Movement and became aware for the first time that careers previously barred to women – medicine and aviation, for example – were within reach. Seddon received her degree in 1970 and was accepted into the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. “I was pretty sure when I started medical school that I wanted to be a surgeon of some sort,” she told the NASA oral historian. In 1973, having gained her medical degree, she completed a surgical internship at the University of Tennessee and became the only woman on their three-year general surgery residency programme.

“I think I was probably the second woman they had ever accepted,” she recalled, “so that was interesting!” During this period, her research interests expanded to cover the nutrition of surgical patients – the techniques and technologies needed to feed intravenously were still in their infancy – and it was this mix of skills that Seddon believes attracted her to NASA. She did not believe that she stood a chance of making the cut. “They were hiring people for July 1st 1978,” she said, “and I was finishing my residency June 30th.” If it did not work out, she told herself, she would return to Plan B: a surgical subspecialty or a PhD in nutrition. As events unfolded, Plan A succeeded and she was selected by NASA in January 1978. She continued working part-time in hospitals in the Houston area and married fellow astronaut Hoot Gibson in May 1981. Their first child, Paul, was born in July of the following year, becoming the first child born to parents who were both astronauts.

 

Pictured during training for her second mission, in June 1990, Rhea Seddon (right) was one of the first two female physicians selected into NASA's astronaut corps. She participated in two dedicated Spacelab Life Sciences missions. Photo Credit: NASA.

 

Seddon’s second flight, Spacelab-4, was scheduled for March 1987 at the time of the Challenger disaster and the subsequent grounding of the Shuttle fleet meant that it was June 1991 before the mission – by now renamed Spacelab Life Sciences – actually flew. She completed three flights in total and worked extensively on the development of the Neurolab mission, before retiring from NASA in early 1998. With Seddon’s departure, only Anna Fisher and Shannon Lucid remained attached to the astronaut office. Lucid’s story was detailed in an account, published on this site last week, and it is no stretch of the imagination that America’s first six women astronauts took enormous steps forward for their gender and for the generations which followed.

Today, it is commonplace for female astronauts to have flown several times in orbit. Last week’s untimely passing of Janice Voss shows us how much they have achieved, in such a short span of time, for she was the fifth woman in history to chalk up five missions…a remarkable achievement, when one remembers that the world record is only seven. A woman (Susan Helms) jointly holds the record for the longest single EVA, whilst another (Peggy Whitson, the incumbent chief of NASA’s astronaut office) has more than a year of her life off the planet. Women have participated extensively in many historic missions: Yelena Kondakova and Shannon Lucid were the first from their respective nations to fly long-duration flights, Eileen Collins was the first female spacecraft commander and Peggy Whitson the first female space station commander – and, with South Korean astronaut Soyeon Yi, flew the first re-entry in which women outnumbered men on a crew.

Yet there is still a long way to go. Women today actually represent a mere ten percent of the 520 or so unique spacefarers who have journeyed beyond the thin veil of Earth’s atmosphere and into the ethereal blackness that lies beyond. When Shannon Walker flew to the International Space Station in June 2010 – becoming the most recent ‘rookie’ female astronaut to enter orbit – she was only the 55th of her gender to do so. With the end of the Shuttle era, fewer flight opportunities are now available for women and it must be expected that a decline in their number will be inevitable. In the foreseeable future, an average of just one female astronaut or cosmonaut, per annum – Sunita Williams in 2012, Karen Nyberg in 2013 and Yelena Serova in 2014 – will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.

It is a sad reality and yet hope should still be kindled…for the assignment of women to space missions is no longer regarded in the same ‘historic’ way that it was in years gone by. In September of this year, Sunita Williams will become only the second woman in history to take command of a space station, with barely a mention in the media. When Tracy Caldwell Dyson became the most recent female spacewalker – performing three dramatic EVAs with Doug Wheelock in August 2010 – it scarcely made the news, apart from in dedicated space circles. More records will be secured in the future, when the time comes for a woman to leave her bootprints on the dusty surface of the Moon or the blood-red plains of Mars, but it is a pleasing sign that our species is moving forward in the right direction when we acquiesce that the presence of women in space is now truly commonplace.

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