“You’re Not In A Simulator”: Remembering the Ride of Sally Ride & the Achievements of Women in Space

Sally Ride at work on Challenger’s flight deck during STS-7. Her career opened the door for U.S. women to venture into orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

Forty years ago, today, America launched its first woman into space. Physicist Dr. Sally Ride rocketed to orbit aboard shuttle Challenger, accompanied by her STS-7 crewmates Bob Crippen, Rick Hauck, John Fabian and Norm Thagard, to become only the world’s third female spacefarer.

In so doing, she followed in the footsteps of Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, but whilst theirs had both been politically and ideologically motivated stunts, the “Ride of Sally Ride” on 18 June 1983 opened the floodgates for a further 53 U.S. women to achieve Earth orbit between August 1984 and October 2022, most recently the first Native American woman in space, Nicole Mann.

Video Credit: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum

But STS-7 cemented other records, too. It was the first time that as many as five people had launched into space aboard the same vehicle and during the crew’s six days in orbit, they deployed a pair of geostationary-bound communications satellites—Canada’s Anik-C2 and Indonesia’s Palapa-B1—and also released and later retrieved the German-built Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS), which returned the first “full” photographs of the shuttle, drifting serenely above a cloud-speckled Home Planet.

Ride had been selected into NASA’s first class of shuttle-era astronauts in January 1978, alongside physicians Anna Fisher and Rhea Seddon, electrical engineer Judy Resnik, geologist Kathy Sullivan and biochemist Shannon Lucid. After several years of Astronaut Candidate (ASCAN) training, in April 1982 she was notified by George Abbey, director of Flight Crew Operations, and Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director Chris Kraft that she would fly her first shuttle mission on STS-7.

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

In a NASA Oral History Project interview, Ride—who died in 2012, aged 61—recalled the conversation with her bosses, in which Abbey and Kraft stressed that a lot of media attention would fall upon her shoulders. Kraft’s message was that NASA would furnish her with all the support she needed.

“It was a very reassuring message,” Ride said later, “coming from the head of the space center.” Crippen, Hauck, Fabian and Ride were formally named to STS-7 in April 1982, with physician Thagard joining them a few months later to conduct tests in support of NASA’s push to understand Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS), or “space sickness”.

Video Credit: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum

Years later, Hauck remembered a few “awkward” occasions, including training on the shuttle’s toilet, whilst some old-time NASA engineers convinced themselves that Ride might desire a makeup kit. “So they came to me, figuring that I could give them advice,” Ride laughed. “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.”

On the morning of 18 June 1983, the five astronauts left the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), bound for historic Pad 39A and shuttle Challenger, which would be embarking on her second trip to space. When they reached the pad perimeter, Crippen turned to his all-rookie crew and told them 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!”

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

STS-7’s countdown proceeded smoothly and at 11:33 a.m. EDT, Challenger rose from Earth atop a pillar of golden flame. “Physically, the simulator does a pretty good job,” remembered Ride. “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,” she continued. “The physical sensations are pretty close, and, of course, the details of what you see in the cockpit are very realistic.”

Ride’s first space mission, STS-7, saw several satellites deployed and by mission standards would be viewed as routine. However, the inclusion of Sally Ride to the crew would serve as a watershed event that would alter the makeup of shuttle crews for the duration of the program’s 30-year history. Photo Credit: NASA

There, however, all similarities ended. “The actual experience of a launch is not even close to the simulators,” Ride said. “The simulators just don’t capture the psychological and emotional feelings that come along with the actual launch.

“Those are fueled by the realization that you’re not in a simulator: you’re sitting on top of tons of rocket fuel and it’s basically exploding underneath you,” she added. “It’s an emotionally and psychologically overwhelming experience; very exhilarating and terrifying, all at the same time.”

Sally Ride’s orbital experiences would serve to fire the imagination of a generation of women who would enter careers in aerospace. Her technical knowledge was viewed as far more important than her gender however in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster – she became part of the committee that reviewed the cause of the accident. Photo Credit: NASA

Over the following days, Fabian and Ride oversaw the deployment of their two commercial satellite payloads. For her part, Ride found that—after an hour or so to learn how to move around in the strange environment—weightlessness was very relaxing.

During the second half of STS-7, the crew used Challenger’s 50-foot-long (15-meter) Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanized arm to deploy and later retrieve SPAS, whose automatic cameras captured the first full view of a shuttle in space. In addition to this historic photograph, another accomplishment was getting the RMS into a configuration that created the number “7” to honor their mission.

A bright flash of Challenger’s Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines illuminates the STS-7 payload bay, packed with equipment. Photo Credit: NASA

This was not originally intended, even though the crew did train to maneuver the arm on the ground and their mission patch included “7” in its design. Still, some engineers were concerned that such a maneuver might stretch the arm to its structural limits.

“We worked out the position [with] the arm in the shape of a “7” for the seventh flight and we didn’t tell anybody about this, of course,” said Ride. “We had this on a back-of-our-hand-type of procedure—what angles each joint had to be in order for it to look like that—and then we had worked on the timing, so that we could catch the space shuttle against the black sky, with the horizon down below.

The presence of a camera aboard the Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS) enabled this astonishing view of Challenger in orbit to be taken. It marked the first time that an image had ever been acquired of the whole shuttle in space. Photo Credit: NASA

“That was the picture we most wanted,” she continued. “Now, we got a lot of good pictures, against the cloud background and against the total black sky…It had just a whole battery of cameras: a still camera, a TV camera, a motion-picture camera and so we’re running these various cameras by remote as we fly the shuttle around it so that we can get the shuttle in various types of positions.”

Capturing the SPAS after a couple of days, Challenger demonstrated the shuttle’s capacity for rendezvous and cleared a significant hurdle, ahead of the planned April 1984 retrieval and repair of NASA’s malfunctioning Solar Max satellite. “It was a big deal,” Crippen recalled, “and we wanted to make sure that we could rendezvous with satellites, could come back in and grab them. It turned out that it all went extremely well.”

Video Credit: NASA, via National Space Society (NSS)

All in all, STS-7’s six days in space ran smoothly. One issue of worrisome note was a small “pit” in one of the shuttle’s forward flight deck windows, caused by an impacting piece of Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris (MMOD): probably a paint fleck, moving at 4 miles (6.4 kilometer) per second. Crippen elected not to tell Mission Control and the issue did not receive any attention until after Challenger had landed.

STS-7 was meant to mark the shuttle’s first return to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) runway at KSC—becoming the first mission to land back at its launch site—but poor weather in Florida forced managers to wave-off the attempt and retarget Challenger for the backup site at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. That gave the astronauts a few hours of free time for their own impromptu “Space Olympics”.

On STS-41G in October 1984, Kathy Sullivan became the first U.S. female spacewalker. The mission also marked Sally Ride’s second spaceflight. Photo Credit: NASA

Needless to say, Ride—by default—won the title of fastest woman on the crew.

The Ride of Sally Ride, four decades ago today, began a journey for U.S. women which shows no sign of slowing down, but rather will inevitably accelerate. A year later, in October 1984, she became the first American female to log a second mission, with a third on the cards for July 1986, but the loss of Challenger the previous January was the beginning of the end for Ride’s astronaut career.

Peggy Whitson is the most experienced U.S. spacefarer and the most experienced female spacefarer, with more than 665 days spent in orbit and 60 spacewalking hours. Photo Credit: NASA

Since STS-7, 53 more U.S. women have followed in her footsteps, with America’s female space endurance record-holder Peggy Whitson due to arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Dragon Freedom next month in command of AxiomSpace, Inc.’s all-private Ax-2 research mission, Jasmin Moghbeli set to lead Crew-7 for the multi-month Expedition 69/70 increment in mid-August and Loral O’Hara flying shoulder to shoulder with a pair of Russian cosmonauts aboard Soyuz MS-24 in mid-September.

On STS-41G in October 1984, Ride’s second flight, fellow astronaut Kathy Sullivan became the first U.S. woman to perform a spacewalk, spending three hours and 29 minutes laboring outside the shuttle on the first refueling demonstration in space. Female Extravehicular Activity (EVA) records have continued to notch up over the years: Kathy Thornton became the first woman to record more than two spacewalksand the only woman to spacewalk on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)—whilst Linda Godwin remains the only woman to have spacewalked outside two separate space stations, Russia’s Mir in March 1996 and the ISS in December 2001.

On STS-108, Linda Godwin became the only woman to have spacewalked outside both Mir and the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Spacewalking records have increased over the years, with the table currently topped by Peggy Whitson, with a cumulative 60 hours and ten minutes across ten EVAs between August 2002 and May 2017. And for her part, Whitson has accrued other female records, becoming the first woman to command a space station in the fall of 2007—and to do so twice, with a second command in spring 2017—and the first and only woman to lead NASA’s Astronaut Corps.

With most women astronauts in the shuttle era necessarily logging short-duration flights of only a few days to a couple of weeks at most, it was not until 1996 that Shannon Lucid became the first U.S. female to fly a long-duration mission to Mir, spending 188 days off the planet between her launch in March of that year and her return the following September. Lucid had already secured records by becoming the first woman to fly a third, fourth and fifth spaceflight and between June 1985 and November 2016 she was the oldest female astronaut ever to travel into orbit, a record captured by Whitson in November 2016, who will recapture it again aged 63 when she launches aboard Ax-2 in May.

World record holder Lucid watches the growth of plants in a Russian greenhouse aboard Mir. This photograph was taken in September 1996, shortly after the crew of STS-79 arrived to bring her home. Photo Credit: NASA

Endurance records for women were pushed further by Suni Williams, who wrapped up a 195-day increment on the ISS in June 2007, eclipsing Lucid’s decade-held record. That in turn was surpassed by Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in mid-2015 before Whitson completed a 289-day mission in September 2017 and Christina Koch established the current empirical record of 328 days when she returned to Earth in February 2020.

And Koch, of course, has records already to her name and other records yet to set. As well as holding the current record for the longest single mission ever undertaken by a woman, she and Expedition 60/61 crewmate Jessica Meir performed the first three all-female EVAs between October 2019 and January 2020.

In the fall of 2019, Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch performed the first all-female Extravehicular Activity (EVA). And in February 2020, Koch returned to Earth after 328 days in space, logging the longest single space voyage ever undertaken by a woman. Photo Credit: NASA

Earlier this month, Koch was assignedamid great fanfare—to the crew of Artemis II, the first human voyage to the Moon in more than a half-century. That will make her the first woman to depart the vicinity of Earth and venture into deep space to lunar distance, with the potential that Artemis II might even eclipse Apollo 13 as the farthest-traveled human space mission ever undertaken.

But as critical as Artemis II is, it is the first in a series of flights to the Moon which NASA hopes will feature female bootprints on the dusty lunar surface. Geologist Jessica Watkins, who last year became the first African-American woman to log a long-duration ISS increment, is one potential candidate for a seat on a future Artemis crew.

As a member of the Artemis II crew, Christina Koch will become the first woman in history to venture into deep space and travel to the Moon. Photo Credit: NASA/Josh Valcarcel

And Watkins’ achievement harks back to the very first African-American female spacefarer, physician Mae Jemison, who flew shuttle Endeavour on STS-47 in September 1992. That mission was also the first (and only) time that a married couple have launched together into orbit.

In addition to civilian physicians, engineers, biochemists, astronomers and geologists, female military officers have since 1990 entered and excelled within NASA’s Astronaut Corps: Susan Helms became the first active-duty Air Force woman to fly in space in January 1993, followed by Army aviator Nancy Sherlock (now Currie-Gregg) in June 1993, the Navy’s Wendy Lawrence in March 1995 and the first Native American female spacefarer Nicole Mann of the Marine Corps who began a five-month ISS mission last October. Added to that list, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot and command a shuttle mission and Mann became the first female to command a Commercial Crew vehicle, as well as the first woman to command a crew on her very first spaceflight.     

Eileen Collins, the first female spacecraft commander in history, floats in Columbia’s middeck during STS-93 in July 1999. Photo Credit: NASA

Civilian astronauts have also played a role in this unfolding drama. Concord, N.H. schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe might have been the first non-professional astronaut to fly into space—and taught a pair of lessons from orbit—had she not tragically lost her life with her six STS-51L crewmates in the January 1986 Challenger disaster. Her legacy was continued in August 2007 when her backup, former schoolteacher Barbara Morgan, having joined NASA and completed formal astronaut training, flew aboard shuttle Endeavour on the STS-118 mission.

With the arrival of the Commercial Crew Program and “private” flights, more U.S. women who are not professionally-trained astronauts can expect to gain seats into orbit. In September 2021, geologist Sian Proctor and physician’s assistant Hayley Arceneaux—a childhood cancer survivor and the first person to travel into space with a prosthesis—participated in the three-day-long all-civilian Inspiration4 mission.

Inspiration4 crew members (from left) Hayley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski and Sian Proctor discuss their mission, as the blackened and scorched B1062 looms overhead in SpaceX’s horizontal integration facility. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Bookending Peggy Whitson’s accomplishment as the oldest woman to travel into orbit, Arceneaux secured a record as the youngest U.S. astronaut to reach orbit, aged only 29. It is a record she retains to this day.

And later this summer, when Dragon Resilience launches on the Polaris Dawn mission, a pair of women—SpaceX engineers Anna Menon and Sarah Gillis—will become the first females to travel close to the upper limit of low-Earth orbit, their crew expecting to attain a peak apogee as high as 870 miles (1,400 kilometers). That extreme height should surpass Gemini XI’s September 1966 record for the highest non-lunar altitude ever reached by a human crew.

Sally Ride on Challenger’s flight deck during STS-7. Her mission opened the door for U.S. women to venture into orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

Tragedy has also impacted the ranks of America’s female spaceflying fraternity, as operations at the edge of the most extreme flight-test envelope would be expected to do. McAuliffe and Judy Resnik died in the Challenger accident, whilst Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla and Laurel Clark were killed in the February 2003 re-entry disaster which claimed shuttle Columbia and the STS-107 astronauts.

The human space program for women has changed markedly since Ride’s flight, 40 Junes ago. Whilst the early shuttle-era astronaut classes included a mere handful of women astronauts, the three most recent groups—selected in 2013, 2017 and 2021—have seen women fill as much as half of their ranks. It is an excellent indicator, perhaps, that the importance of U.S. women in space continues to grow.

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