Ride, Sally Ride: Remembering the Legacy of America’s First Woman in Space, OTD in 1983

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

On this warm June day in 1983, America launched its first woman into space. Physicist Sally Ride rocketed into orbit aboard shuttle Challenger, accompanied by STS-7 crewmates Bob Crippen, Rick Hauck, John Fabian and Norm Thagard to become only the world’s third female space traveler in history.

Sally Ride, pictured in the backseat of a NASA T-38 jet trainer. Photo Credit: NASA

In doing so, Ride followed in the footsteps of Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, but while their missions had been politically and ideologically motivated “stunts”, the Ride of Sally Ride on 18 June 1983 opened the floodgates for a further 56 U.S. women to achieve Earth orbit between Judy Resnik in August 1984 and Jeanette Epps last March. But STS-7 cemented other records: it was the first time five humans launched together aboard the same spacecraft, the first deployment of three satellites—Canada’s Anik-C2 and Indonesia’s Palapa-B1 telecommunications satellites, plus Germany’s Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS)—and the first “full” photographs of the shuttle drifting serenely against the blue-and-white grandeur of Earth.

Ride was among NASA’s first class of shuttle astronauts, picked 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 and technical assignments, in April 1982 Ride was notified by Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director Chris Kraft and Director of Flight Crew Operations George Abbey that she would fly as America’s first female astronaut on STS-7.

Sally Ride (far right) occupies the flight engineer’s station behind Commander Bob Crippen (left) and Pilot Rick Hauck (center) during STS-7 simulator training. 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 Kraft and Abbey stressed that much 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 announced to STS-7 in April 1982, with physician Thagard joining them the following December to conduct tests in support of NASA’s drive to understand space sickness.

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

Years later, Hauck remembered a few awkward occasions, including training on the shuttle’s toilet, while some NASA old-timers convinced themselves that Ride might actually need or desire a makeup kit. “So they came to me, figuring 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 their quarters at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) bound for historic Pad 39A and shuttle Challenger. When they reached the pad perimeter fence, Crippen turned to the four “rookies” 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

The countdown proceeded smoothly and at 7:33 a.m. EDT Challenger sprang from Earth for the second mission of her career atop a pillar of golden flame from her three main engines and twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). “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 added. “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 three 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 the similarities ended. “The actual experience of a launch is not even close to the simulators,” said Ride. “The simulators just don’t capture the psychological and emotional feelings that come along with the actual launch.

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

The External Tank – which carried cryogenic propellants for the Shuttle’s main engines – is jettisoned early in the STS-7 mission. This view was acquired shortly after the crew unstrapped and began weightless operations. Photo Credit: NASA

Over the succeeding days, Fabian and ride oversaw the deployment of their two commercial satellite payloads. And for her part, Ride found that—after an hour to learn how to move 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 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.

Ride will be remembered not only as the first female U.S. astronaut but also as a strong supporter for increased science education for children, especially girls. Ride went on to author five books focused on the subject. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

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

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

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”.

NASA astronauts (from left) Suni Williams, Tracy Dyson and Jeanette Epps pose for a photograph last week aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA

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

The Ride of Sally Ride, more than four decades ago, marked the start of a journey for U.S. women which shows no sign of slowing down and has surely accelerated. In October 1984, Ride became the first American female to fly a second mission, with a third also on the cards for July 1986, but the loss of Challenger the previous January spelled the beginning of the end for Ride’s astronaut career. 

The Polaris Dawn crew, backdropped by a Starship stack at SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. Photo Credit: Polaris Program/John Kraus

Since STS-7, a total of 56 U.S. women followed in Ride’s footsteps, from Judy Resnik on STS-41D in August 1984 to Crew-8’s Jeanette Epps, aboard the International Space Station (ISS) since last March. Later this summer, that number will swell further when a Crew Dragon flies the all-private Polaris Dawn mission and a pair of women—SpaceX engineers Anna Menon and Sarah Gillis—will become the first female space travelers to travel close to the upper limit of low-Earth orbit, their crew targeting a peak apogee of 870 miles (1,400 kilometres).

That extreme altitude should surpass Gemini XI’s as-yet-unbroken September 1966 achievement for the highest non-lunar height ever reached by a human crew. Later this summer, NASA’s Zena Cardman will lead the long-duration Crew-9 increment to the ISS—the first time a civilian female “rookie” astronaut has commanded a crew. 

Christina Koch holds up a cardboard cutout of Jeremy Hansen inside a mockup of the Artemis II Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman

In the fall—possibly as early as October 2024—Houston, Texas-headquartered AxiomSpace, Inc., is targeting its fourth Private Astronaut Mission (PAM) to the space station, likely commanded by space endurance heavyweight Peggy Whitson, the world’s most experienced female astronaut. If she flies Ax-4 as expected, Whitson will add some extra time to her 675-day cumulative space-time tally, recorded across three long-duration ISS increments as a NASA astronaut between June 2002 and September 2017 and a previous AxiomSpace mission as an Axiom astronaut in May of last year.

And in the early fall of 2025, of course, Artemis II’s Christina Koch is set to become the first woman to fly to lunar distance on the first crewed voyage to the Moon in over five decades. As these trailblazers continue to push the boundaries of female exploration, they can trace their inspiration back to Sally Ride, the young physicist who more than four decades began womankind’s journey for America in space.

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