Astronaut Sally Ride: A multi-talented dynamo (1983)

In honor of Sally Ride’s huge contributions to the American space program — and on the sad occasion of her death from pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012 — we take a look back to 1983, just four days before she blasted off for her first trip into space.

Astronaut Sally Ride is a multi-talented dynamo

Joyce Ride remembers, more than 30 years ago, how society felt about women studying science and math. It just wasn’t done.

“At that time,” she recalls, “it was felt that girls couldn’t master the subjects anyway. They were discouraged from attempting it.”

It was, says Mrs. Ride, “a cultural thing. Why should a woman study math? She was just going to get married and have children anyway, and just add up the grocery bills.”

Those attitudes have changed in the three decades since. And the changes came “in the nick of time,” Mrs Ride says.

They came in time for Mrs Ride’s oldest daughter, Sally Kristin Ride, to earn three degrees in physics and to conduct research in fields where women once were rare. And the changes came in time for Sally Kristin Ride to be tapped as an astronaut.

On June 18, she will become the first American woman to fly into space.

Saturday, she will climb into the cockpit of the space shuttle Challenger with four men to be launched into orbit by 7 million pounds of rocket power. She’ll spend six days in space doing key jobs — launching two satellites, operating a robot arm and acting as flight engineer during the critical ascent and landing.

It won’t be the first space trip for a woman, or even the second. The Russians have twice sent up female cosmonauts. But the space flight of Sally Ride represents a new crest for the long climb of America women into nontraditional fields.

Space flight is a special case — no other field demands a personal tapestry of so complex a weave, with threads of education, experience, intelligence and proven, unflappable grit.

Tough-minded experts at NASA found these qualities in Sally Ride. When they made their selection, gender was not even an issue. For America’s first woman in space, it never has been.

First American woman in space

“The space flight is the result of a perfectly natural progression for Sally, starting, I suppose, when she played football in the street with the boys,” the astronaut’s mother says.

Sally Ride grew up in Encino, an insulated community on the edge of Los Angeles. Her parents knew very early that their first born was exceptionally bright, strong willed and fiercely independent. “We haven’t spoken for Sally since she was 2, maybe 3,” says her father, Dale B Ride, a former political science professor who is now assistant to the president of Santa Monica College.

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She was a pint-sized dynamo, with an awesome mind and an athletic ability that made her first choice when teams were picked for neighborhood ball games. With little apparent effort, Sally learned to read before she was in kindergarten, her mother says, and at age 5 was memorizing statistics from the newspaper sports pages.

Her father introduced Sally to tennis when she was 11, and it became an obsession that was to shape her life for almost 10 years. By age 13, she was easily beating players with more experience, and her father put her on the “circuit,” the series of tennis tournaments played by the athletically gifted in California. Eventually, she was nationally ranked and would be encouraged to turn professional. Her play led to a partial scholarship, starting in the 10th grade at Westlake High School, an exclusive girls’ school tucked into the lush hills above Los Angeles.

Nathan Reynolds, head master at Westlake, remembers Ms Ride most for her tennis play, her scholarship and her “cool.” “She was the very definition of unflappable,” Reynolds says. “Whether she was playing in the finals of a major tennis tournament or taking final exams, there was just never a time when Sally looked ruffled, or unprepared, or unsure of herself… You had the sense she was always in control. Always.”

Ms Ride was captain of a team her senior year that swept every division of the areawide tournament without losing a set. The lack of tennis scholarships for women then is still a source of bitterness to her. But she played on the Stanford University team and took a heavy load of science courses. Eventually, she took an extra senior year at Stanford, earned bachelor’s degrees in both English and science and, for a time, wrote for two women’s sports magazines.

A scientist in the making

For her graduate studies, though, it was all science. She earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in X-ray astrophysics, the study of radiation emitted by distant stars. Ms. Ride also was the only woman on a research team that studied high-energy lasers.

Ms Ride was in the final stages of work on her doctorate and looking for work when NASA announced it was hiring astronauts. The notice in the Stanford campus newspaper said the job was open to both sexes. Sally Ride quickly applied.

There have been women in the space program since the beginning. Most were secretaries or assembly workers. Others were nurses and one was in charge of preparing space food.

Twenty-five women pilots were tested in 1962, and 13 passed the examinations. But NASA decided to stick with military-trained test pilots, who then were all male.

Many in NASA had serious doubts about women flying in space and the concern centered on possible biological difficulties. One problem was the uncertainty of how the female body would react to the effects of weightlessness. “There were a lot of people who thought there would be risks in flying women,” Dr Harold Sandier, chief of NASA’s Biomedical Research says. “We find everybody loses about 50 percent of their physiological reserve. Since women have a lower muscle mass, they are closer to a critical point in muscle tone loss.”

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The scientist found that women, in some respects, were better adapted for space flight than men. When tasks required fine, delicate movements, women were superior. Men had the edge only when brute strength and speed were required.

Thousands of candidates applied for astronaut training in 1977, and six of the 35 selected were women. All of the women brought extraordinary accomplishments with them when they reported for training. Two were physicians. One was an experienced pilot and a biochemist. The rest were scientists, holding doctorates in fields from laser physics to electrical engineering. Their ages ranged from 27 to 35. A year later, 10 more astronauts, including two women, were named.

Sally Ride says there are some at NASA “who still need to be convinced” that women belong in space, but the women astronauts say they found very few “attitudinal problems”.

Astronaut Mary Cleave, who spent much of her academic career as the only woman in classes of engineers or science students, says the adjustment was typical. “Every time you go into a society where you’re something new, you have this little stabilization period,” she says. “They had to find out that I’m not going to fall apart one week every month. Now I don’t have to prove it.”

Several male astronauts, in more candid moments, confess they underwent “adjustments” to the idea of women working at their side.

Other changes were necessary. A portion of the astronaut gym at the Johnson Space Center was partitioned for a women’s dressing room. The space suits were designed to accommodate the small frames of most of the women — although some, such as 5- foot-2 Mary Cleave, are still unfitted.

Only two of the women were married when they arrived in Houston. One brought her husband and three children with her, another was married to a doctor later selected as an astronaut.

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The six single astronaut women tended to keep a closed social circle. They dated other astronauts or NASA engineers and scientists. There was little contact with strangers outside the space community.

Margaret Rhea Seddon married an astronaut, Robert L Gibson. They now have a child. Anna Fisher also is now expecting.

Though it was never expressed, there was an undercurrent of competition. But they all wanted to go into space as soon as possible.

How flight crews are picked are still a mystery — even to most of the astronauts. But when Sally Ride served on the second and third shuttle flights as capsule communicator, the astronaut in Mission Control who talks to the crews in orbit, it was clear she was near the head of the line.

In April 1982, NASA announced the crew for the sixth shuttle flight. Robert Crippen, veteran of the first mission, was named commander. He helped pick the others — Frederick Hauck, pilot, and John M. Fabian and Sally Ride, mission specialists.

Later, a fifth crewman, Norman E Thagard, a physican, was added.

Publicity blizzard

The expected blizzard of publicity descended on Sally Ride. She found it distasteful and grew to dislike intensely some elements of the media, according to her parents and friends.

Ms Ride had been dating Steven A Hawley, an astronaut-astronomer, for about a year. Last summer, they slipped away to his Kansas hometown and married. They kept it secret for several weeks and have talked to nobody in the media, except Susan Oakie, about their personal lives.

They guard their private life closely, keeping their home address and phone number secret even from NASA public relations executives.

The couple lives in a small patio home a mile from the space center. They entertain there, informally, around a pool that dominates their small back yard. For both, most waking hours center on one thing — space flight.

Earlier this year, Hawley — who enviously watched his wife prepare for her space mission — was himself named to a space flight crew. Ms. Ride admits Hawley’s assignment relieved some tension around their home.

She has been asked “distastefully personal” questions.

Does she cry when things go wrong? (No.) How will she handle menstruation in space? (The same way as on earth.) Will the men have to turn their backs when she uses the rest room? (Of course not, the toilet has curtains.) Does she plan to become a mother? (None of your business, but said with a smile.)

At a general news conference, she chided the press for making “such a big deal” of a woman flying into space.

“It’s time that people realize that women in this country can do any job that they want to do,” she said.

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