Ride, Sally Ride: Thirty Years Since America’s First Woman in Space (Part 1)

As an astronaut an ambassador for science and exploration, Sally Ride created a lasting impact on society. Photo Credit: NASA
As an astronaut and as an ambassador for science and exploration, Sally Ride created a lasting impact on society. Photo Credit: NASA

Next week marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of America’s first woman into space. On 18 June 1983, physicist Dr. Sally Ride rocketed into orbit aboard Challenger and followed in the footsteps of Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya as history’s third female spacefarer. Like Tereshkova and Savitskaya, she blazed a trail which is today being continued aboard the International Space Station by NASA’s Karen Nyberg and aboard the Shenzhou-10/Tiangong-1 complex by China’s Wang Yaping. This year, 2013, is truly historic, for it also marks the half-century anniversary of the first woman in space … and there can be no greater tribute to female accomplishments on the final frontier than by a long-term female presence there. Thirty years ago, on STS-7, Sally Ride took the United States’ first tentative steps toward making that presence a reality.

It is bitterly disappointing and intensely tragic that Ride never lived to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her flight, alongside STS-7 crewmates Bob Crippen, Rick Hauck, John Fabian, and Norm Thagard. Her untimely passing in July 2012 from pancreatic cancer removed yet another space pioneer in a desperately sad year which saw four of humanity’s finest taken from us. First there was Janice Voss in February, then Alan Poindexter in July, and, most recently, Neil Armstrong in August.

From the instant that Ride was assigned to STS-7 it was recognized that she would become an American icon. Of Norwegian ancestry, she 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, captained the team. After graduation from Westlake she entered Stanford to study physics and English. Whilst there, Billie Jean King watched her play and advised Ride to leave college and turn professional. She 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 dayshours, evenbefore she drove to Houston to commence astronaut training.

Pictured during pre-launch tests in May 1983, Sally Ride (left) is pictured with fellow astronaut Anna Fisher. At the time of writing, Fisher is a NASA management astronaut, but remains the only member of the 1978 class still on active status. Photo Credit: NASA
Pictured during pre-launch tests in May 1983, Sally Ride (left) is pictured with fellow astronaut Anna Fisher. At the time of writing, Fisher is a NASA management astronaut, but remains the only member of the 1978 class still on active status. Photo Credit: NASA

“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.” Two weeks after Rick Hauck’s screening, early in October 1977, the 26-year-old Ride was called to Houston as part of another 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.”

For Ride, the media attention at becoming one of six female candidates was especially 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.”

The pressure on NASA to select female astronauts was strong and, according to Deke Slayton in his autobiography, Deke, co-authored with Michael Cassutt, “there was some last-minute political bullshit.” This appeared to center 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 in 1978 (John Blaha, Roy Bridges, Guy Gardner, Ron Grabe, Bryan O’Connor, and Dick Richards) 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 public image and its need to hire an astronaut class which truly represented the depth and breadth of America.

In April 1982, Ride was called into the office of George Abbey, head of Flight Crew Operations at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Abbey had chaired the selection committee and it was he who gave final approval on the choice of astronaut crews. For Ride, being summoned to his office, alone, that spring day, was unusual. “The commander is the first to know about a flight assignment,” she remembered. “Bob Crippen, who would be the commander of my crew, had already been told, but then usually the rest of the crew is told together; at least, that was the way it was done then. In this case, Mr. Abbey told me first, before he called over the other members of the crew. He took me up to JSC Director Chris Kraft’s office, who talked about the implications of being the first American woman astronaut. He reminded me that I would get a lot of press attention and asked if I was ready for that. His message was ‘Let us know if you need help. We’re here to help you in any way and can offer whatever help you need.’ It was a very reassuring message, coming from the head of the space center.”

Ride’s colleagues on the STS-7 mission would be Crippen, a veteran of the first shuttle flight, joined by Rick Hauck in the pilot’s seat and fellow mission specialist John Fabian. They were destined to train for a year, with a tentatively scheduled launch in April 1983 aboard Challenger to deploy two communications satellites and release and later retrieve a free-flying platform (the Shuttle Pallet Satellite, or “SPAS”) using the Canadian-built mechanical arm. In the same way that Ride found out about her assignment, alone, John Fabian had a similar recollection. “I didn’t know right off the bat that Sally was going to fly with me,” he explained, “and that Rick Hauck was going to fly with me. I’m sure that the decision had been made, but maybe because they hadn’t been told, I wasn’t told. It wasn’t a gathering. I don’t know why.” Certainly, being told as individuals was unusual, for most shuttle crews were informed as a group … and even the crew of Apollo 11 was gathered together to be told of their impending assignment. Little did they know at the time that their crew would ultimately expand to five members with the inclusion of a third mission specialist, Norm Thagard.

Sally Ride (right) served as the flight engineer, seated behind and between the Commander and Pilot on the Shuttle's flight deck. Her role during ascent and re-entry was to assist with monitoring Challenger's displays and systems. Photo Credit: NASABefore STS-7 even left Earth, however, the most famous aspect of the mission was Ride herself. In some of the more cynical areas of the media, it was speculated that she had been added to the crew purely as a public relations ploy, in response to the Soviet Union launching Svetlana Savitskaya in August 1982. “NASA’s crew allocation procedure is a closely-guarded secret, though it is known to involve seniority and an attempt to match education and experience to the mission,” Flight International told its readers in April 1982, “but since NASA is financed by the U.S. taxpayer, its public image is also important. So it is likely that NASA is capitalising on the publicity of having a woman fly early … ”

Whilst it may be a little more than pure coincidence that a female astronaut happened to be one of the earliest to fly, Bob Crippen vehemently disagreed with the notion that Ride was simply a politically-driven “token” on the mission. “She is flying with us because she is the very best person for the job,” he told the press. “There is no man I would rather have in her place.” Still, the importance of her presence was evident. President Ronald Reagan invited the entire crew to the White House before launch … and again, for a state dinner, after the flight … and at various functions the white male astronauts were largely ignored or unrecognised by the press; the journalists were interested only in Ride.

Years later, Rick Hauck felt that, despite a few “awkward” occasions, training and execution of the first American mixed-sex space flight went without many problems. “There were situations,” he acquiesced, “where, maybe in the potty training, I’d never been involved in professional discussions with women about those! It was uncomfortable in a few situations, but the discomfort disappeared easily. Sally was great and Crip set the right tone in terms of what his expectations were of the crew. We just did it.”

Awkwardness was also a problem faced by NASA’s male-dominated engineering community, who decided that the female astronauts were bound to require a makeup kit! “So they came to me,” laughed Ride, “figuring that I could give them advice. It was about the last thing in the world that I wanted to be spending my time training on, so I didn’t spend much time on it at all. There were a couple of other female astronauts who were given the job of determining what should go in the makeup kit and how many tampons should fly as part of a flight kit. I remember the engineers trying to decide how many tampons should fly on a one-week flight and there were probably other issues, just because they had never thought about what kind of personal equipment a female astronaut would take. They knew that a man might want a shaving kit, but they didn’t know what a woman would carry.”

Confining four people to a volume the size of a camper van for six days made for cramped accommodation. Then, eight months into their training, the quartet became a quintet. When STS-5 rocketed into orbit on November 1982, one of its objectives was to perform the first-ever shuttle-based spacewalk. Unfortunately, this was cancelled, partly due to space sickness suffered by two of the crew members. This adverse effect on no less than half of the STS-5 crew prompted NASA to add a pair of physician-astronauts to STS-7 and STS-8.

The original, four-member STS-7 crew of (left to right) Bob Crippen, John Fabian, Rick Hauck and Sally Ride were joined by physician-astronaut Norm Thagard to form the world's first-ever five-member crew. Photo Credit: NASA
The original four-member STS-7 crew of (left to right) Bob Crippen, John Fabian, Rick Hauck, and Sally Ride were joined by physician-astronaut Norm Thagard to form the world’s first-ever five-person crew. Photo Credit: NASA

Norm Thagard, the physician joining Crippen’s crew, was already well known to Rick Hauck. “He and I had first met when we were both on the USS Lake Champlain, learning to land airplanes on aircraft carriers,” in the mid-1960s, recalled Hauck. “In order to try to learn more about space sickness, NASA generated a bunch of tests and I was one of the guinea pigs! As soon as we got on orbit, Norm had these visual, spinning things that I had to watch and, boy, I felt miserable. They sure accomplished the purpose! It was after about four hours that I started to come out of it and that resolved itself.” A similar perspective was offered by John Fabian: “I told people that if you had one, Norm Thagard measured it!”

At the time of Thagard’s assignmentjust four days before Christmas 1982the STS-7 launch was still officially scheduled for April of the following year, which also provided NASA with invaluable data about the length of time needed by astronauts to prepare themselves for missions. Eventually, due to hydrogen leaks which pushed Challenger’s maiden voyage from late January into early April 1983, Bob Crippen’s team found themselves rescheduled for mid-June. Despite the late addition of Thagard, Sally Ride recalled that he blended into the crew seamlessly. “We didn’t spend every waking hour together,” she said, “but we did spend almost all our time together, either as an entire crew or in groups of two or three. I was spending almost all my time with Crip and Rick in launch and re-entry simulations. Also, because we had things that required the whole crew, we did a lot of training together. We got to know each other very well. We never had any issues at all and got to be very good friends through the training.”

By the time Paul Weitz’s STS-6 crew brought Challenger swooping into Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 9 April 1983, the STS-7 launch date had slipped to “no earlier than” 18 June. Although SPAS, with its rendezvous commitment, attracted the most press attention, the commercial focus was a pair of commercial telecommunications satellites: Canada’s Anik-C2 and Indonesia’s Palapa-B1.

Displaying a similar theme of unity as a crew, and heralded by signs which screamed Ride, Sally Ride, Bob Crippen led his team out of the Operations and Checkout Building into the glare of media flashbulbs in the early hours of 18 June. It had been a peculiar morning. John Fabian remembered it lucidly: their “last breakfast,” a cake on the table, designed with their crew patch, followed by suiting-up and the long drive to Pad 39A. “You go through these various steps along the way,” he recalled of the drive. “At each place, they’re checking your ID and less and less people can proceed beyond each one of those.” When they finally passed through the last of those checks, Crippen turned to the others and told them that they had just said goodbye to the last sane people in the facility, “because we’ve got to be crazy to do what we’re doing!”

The five astronauts took the elevator ride to the 195-foot level, where they disembarked and headed across a narrow walkway to the “white room,” adjacent to Challenger’s access hatch, where technicians awaited them. Whilst Crippen and Hauck were being strapped into their seats, Fabian had a few minutes to look around, “take a last-minute nervous pee,” and watch the twinkling of car headlights, to the north, the south, and the west, crowding the roadways of the Kennedy Space Center. As Mission Specialist One, Fabian took his seat directly behind Hauck, with Ride to his left in the flight engineer’s position and Thagard downstairs on the middeck. “Once you get in the vehicle,” he explained, “and get strapped down and the door’s closed and latched and the technicians who are out there have run like hell, which is the right thing to do, you have just a little bit of time to think about all this, about what you’re going to do and about why you’re out there and about how you feel doing it.” That feeling lasted all the way down to the last built-in hold in the countdown, at T-9 minutes; after that, Fabian continued, “you’re only set on one thing: and that is you really want to fly today!” Unlike some astronauts, he admitted that he was aware of the risks involved, but “fear” did not factor into his emotional state. “I tell people I’ve been married to the same woman for 44 years,” he reasoned, “so I don’t scare easily!”

STS-7 roars into orbit, carrying America's first female astronaut and the first five-member crew. Photo Credit: NASA
STS-7 roars into orbit, carrying America’s first female astronaut and the first five-member crew. Photo Credit: NASA

Thankfully, their countdown and liftoff at precisely 11:33 a.m. EST was one of the smoothest ever conducted. Challenger’s three main engines shut down on time, eight minutes and 20 seconds into the mission. To the untrained eye, the perfect ascent demonstrated NASA’s seemingly effortless ability to fly on time and within the tolerance of very brief “launch windows.” Only five minutes were available to the STS-7 crew for their first opportunity on 18 June, and only two minutes for a second shot, beginning at 12:24 p.m. The shorter-than-normal windows were dictated by three considerations: Earth horizon sensor constraints on Anik-C2 for a deployment during Challenger’s eighth orbit and on Palapa-B1 eleven orbits later, together with a requirement for adequate lighting conditions at Edwards Air Force Base, in the event that an emergency landing should become necessary.

For the four rookies on the crew, their years of training had paid off. “Physically, the simulator does a pretty good job,” Sally Ride said of its closeness to the real thing. “It shakes about right and the sound level is about right and the sensation of being on your back is right. It can’t simulate the G-forces that you feel, but that’s not too dramatic on a shuttle launch. The physical sensations are pretty close and, of course, the details of what you see in the cockpit are very realistic. The simulator is the same as the shuttle cockpit and what you see on the computer screens is what you’d see in flight.” There, however, the similarities ended. “The actual experience of a launch is not even close to the simulators,” Ride exclaimed. “The simulators just don’t capture the psychological and emotional feelings that come along with the actual launch. Those are fuelled by the realisation that you’re not in a simulatoryou’re sitting on top of tons of rocket fuel and it’s basically exploding underneath you! It’s an emotionally and psychologically overwhelming experience; very exhilarating and terrifying, all at the same time.”

During ascent and re-entry, Ride helped Crippen and Hauck keep track of Challenger’s systems. “My job was primarily to keep track of where we were in the checklists and be prepared with the malfunction checklists should anything go wrong,” she remembered. “I was the one that was expected to be first to find and turn to the procedures should anything go wrong. I was also monitoring systems and status on the computer screens. My main job, though, assuming nothing went wrong, was to read the checklist and tick off the milestones. One of the first things that I was supposed to doseven seconds after booster ignitionwas, once the shuttle started to roll, to say ‘Roll program.’ I’ll guarantee that those were the hardest words I ever had to get out of my mouth. It’s not easy to speak seven seconds after launch!”

Meanwhile, in the pilot’s seat, Rick Hauck recalled seeing the sky outside his cockpit window change colour as Challenger climbed higher. “Seeing the sky turn from blue to black in a fraction of a second was amazing,” he said later, “because as you leave the atmosphere, the Sun’s rays are no longer being scattered by the air molecules. I remember as I was glancing out the window, startled, Crip said ‘Eyes on the cockpit!’ Back to work. Watch all the gauges. I guess that’s one thing that stands out in my memory. Everything about it was thrilling.” From his position, Fabian remembered that there was no chit-chat, no jokes“it was all taken very professionally,” he said, “and very seriously”although he did get the chance to crane his neck, a few seconds after launch, to look through one of the overhead windows and watch the fire from the SRBs and the launch pad gradually recede, the view broadening to take in the entire launch complex, then the whole of Cape Canaveral.

Achieving orbit, and the exalted and intensely peculiar state of weightlessness, the five astronauts were finally able to unstrap and begin configuring Challenger from a rocket ship into an Earth-circling spacecraft. “Below” them the Home Planet hung in the blackness like a brilliant blue and white jewel. But there was little time to contemplate their new surroundings. They had work to do.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.


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