“The Six”: Revealing the stories of NASA’s first female astronauts

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As Sally Ride prepared to make history as the first American woman in space, this should have been a moment for science to celebrate.

Instead, a reporter asked a question that stunned Reid and her colleagues.

“During your training as a member of this group, when there was a problem – when there was a funny glitch or something, how did you respond?” Asked. “How did you take him as a human? Are you crying? What are you doing?”

Reid deflected diplomatically, noting that one of her male colleagues had never asked that question.

This exchange from a news conference just weeks before NASA’s Challenger space shuttle launch in 1983 is one of many fascinating and disturbing scenes explored and detailed by author Loren Grasch in her new book, The Six Stories: The Untold Stories of the First Women Astronauts in the World. America”. ”

Grosch said she, like many Americans, grew up knowing Ride’s name and her historic accomplishment. But the journalist began wondering about the other women who trained alongside Ride in NASA’s first co-ed astronaut class. These women — all remarkable and accomplished in their own right — also competed for the chance to be on the same historic shuttle ride.

In Grasch’s book, released Tuesday, Reid’s selection of the historic flight becomes the starting point for a deeper story about NASA’s first female astronauts, including what happened during their first flights, the pressures they faced on the job, and the barrage of sexual questions they asked along the way. .

“I’m trying to tell their story in a way that … it needed to be told at the time,” said Grosch, a reporter who covers space for Bloomberg.

She spoke with CNN recently about the book, and why the stories it explores still resonate decades later.

In the early 1970s, a damning report — quoted in Grosch’s book — criticized the lack of diversity in NASA’s ranks.

“NASA has sent three females into space,” the report said. “Two are Arabella and Anita, both spiders. The other is Miss Baker, a monkey.”

Ruth Bates Harris, who co-authored that report, was fired from the agency for being a “disruptive force,” though she was later rehired after negative political backlash, Grosch wrote. It took nearly a decade to get a longer list of names — all of them human — to start the ranks of women sent into space by NASA, thanks to a major recruiting effort.

“We had the civil rights movement. We had the feminist movement. It was just something that NASA couldn’t ignore anymore,” Grosch said.

More than 1,500 women applied to become astronauts between 1976 and 1977, Grosch wrote.

Ultimately, this group was winnowed down to six.

Courtesy Simon & Schuster

“The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts” by Lauren Grasch will be released on September 12.

The Six became part of NASA’s Astronaut Group 8, which includes 35 candidates They were tapped to begin training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1978. And they weren’t the only women making history. The astronaut trainee class was also the first at NASA to include people of color — three African Americans and one Asian American.

Reid was an astrophysicist. The other women in the class are electrical engineer Judy Resnick, geologist and oceanographer Cathy Sullivan, biochemist Shannon Lucid, and doctors Anna Fisher and Rhea Seddon.

They had one notable thing in common: none of them had been trained to fly jet aircraft, although Resnick, Lucid and Seddon had some flying experience. The Space Shuttle program has added the new role of Mission Specialist, which does not require flight experience. “NASA has been able to open up the criteria to people like scientists and doctors. This has allowed not only women and people of color, but more people from different backgrounds to join the program,” Grosch said.


Seddon, Fisher, Resnick, Shannon Lucid (fourth from left), Ride and Sullivan stand side by side at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, on January 31, 1978.

A 1983 question from a reporter who asked Reid about crying during training was in keeping with the comments of many journalists at the time, and this perspective was also echoed in descriptions of the Six in print and broadcast reports.

“When introducing the women on television, one anchor read their names one by one, followed by each woman’s marital status, with an emphasis on single women,” Grosch wrote. “Various articles referred to them as ‘girls’ or ‘ladies in space,’ and diligent writers made sure to include ages, heights and weights in their descriptions.”

In a television interview featured in the book, NBC’s Tom Brokaw asked Resnick: “Do you think there will ever come a time when romance will be in outer space?”

As part of her research, Grosch said she not only read transcripts of press briefings, but obtained footage through Freedom of Information Act requests.

“Watching the video is worse than hearing or reading the text, because you can see Sally’s face when she answers these inane questions about crying in the simulator or whether she wants to be the first mother in space,” Grosch said. “The media really summed up the emotions that were there at the time and the kind of pressure (the six) were under.”


Astronauts Ride and Fisher participate in a mission sequence test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in May 1983.

While the committee was selecting the astronaut class, their duties on the space shuttle fell largely to one man: George Abbey, NASA’s director of flight operations at the time.

Abe was convinced that Ride was the right person for the mission that would send the first American woman into space. But at first, the director of the space center, who eventually had to give the green light to the selection, did not agree to this.

Grosch writes that Abe, in order to build his case, met with key players, including Bob Crippen, whom he appointed to be the commander of the historic seventh space shuttle flight.

Grosch wrote that Crippen and Abbey felt that in addition to Ride’s many skills, her ability to work under pressure and her ability to get along with others on the crew, the astrophysicist possessed an “unexpectedly attractive” quality.

“As an introvert, Sally wasn’t exactly an introverted person Requests Spotlight or fame. Both men agreed that such a personality might fit better with being “the one person,” Grosch wrote. “They didn’t want to cast someone who wanted attention so badly.”

Finally, Abby prepared a spreadsheet comparing the women, marking each of their skills with an X. Ride edged out her rivals with another X on the grid, “suggesting she has a better understanding of more systems than the other racers,” Grosch said. Add to that her skill with the robotic arm, which will be essential to the mission. “That’s what sealed the deal,” Grosch writes.


Sullivan and Ride flew into space together aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in October 1984. The flight was Ride’s second flight into space. Sullivan made history on this flight, becoming the first American woman to perform a spacewalk.

While Ride was the first, every member of The Six eventually flew on a space shuttle. In her book, Grosch chronicles their journeys, including the 1986 Challenger disaster that claimed Resnick’s life on her second spaceflight.

The stories of the Six are important in any era, but Grosch says there are especially important lessons to be learned today from what Ride and her peers experienced.

“NASA is currently looking to return to the moon with its Artemis program. One of the stated goals of that program is to put the first woman on the moon. “So I think this is just a timely reminder of what women have had to deal with before,” Grosch said. And also how they were tragically left out of the program for so many years.” “Hopefully, when we go back to the moon with women as our top priority, they will have a much easier time than the first women did in the 1970s and 1980s.”

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