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Like Sally Ride poised to make history as the first American woman in space, it should have been a moment when science was celebrated.
But instead, a reporter asked a question that stunned Ride and her crew.
“During your training exercises as a member of this group, when there was a problem – when there was a funny mistake or whatever, how did you respond?” he asked. “How did you take it as a person? Are you, are you crying? What are you doing?”
Ride deflected diplomatically, noting that one of her male crew members had never been asked that question.
The press conference exchange just weeks before the launch of NASA’s space shuttle Challenger in 1983 is one of many fascinating and terrifying scenes unearthed and detailed by author Loren Grush in her new book, “The Six: The Untold Stories of America’s First Women Astronauts.”
Grush said that, like many Americans, she grew up knowing Ride’s name and his historic achievement. But the journalist began to wonder about the other women who trained alongside Ride in NASA’s first co-ed astronaut class. Those women—all formidable and accomplished in their own right—were also competing for a chance to be on that same historic shuttle flight.
In Grush’s book, out Tuesday, Ride’s selection for the landmark trip becomes a jumping-off point for an even deeper story about the U.S. space agency’s first female astronauts, including what happened on their first flights, the pressures they faced on the job, and the barrage of sexist questions they fielded along the way.
“I try to tell their story the way it should have been told at the time,” said Grush, 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.
A damning report called out NASA’s lack of diversity
In the early 1970s, a damning report – cited in Grush’s book – slammed the lack of diversity in NASA’s ranks.
“There are three females sent into space by NASA,” the report said. “Two are Arabella and Anita — both spiders. The other is Miss Baker—a monkey.”
A co-author of that report, Ruth Bates Harris, was fired from the agency for being a “disruptive force,” Grush writes, though she was later rehired after a political backlash. It took about a decade for a longer list of names – all human – to start the ranks of women sent into space by NASA, thanks to a major recruitment drive.
“We had the civil rights movement. We had the feminist movement. It was just something that NASA couldn’t ignore anymore,” Grush said.
More than 1,500 women applied to become astronauts between 1976 and 1977, Grush writes.
Later, that group was winnowed down to six.
“The Six” shared more in common than their gender
“The Six” became part of NASA Astronaut Group 8, a selection of 35 candidates who were chosen to begin training at Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1978. And the women weren’t the only ones making history. The class of astronauts in training it was also NASA’s first to include people of color – three African-Americans and one Asian-American.
Ride was an astrophysicist. The other women in the class were electrical engineer Judy Resnik, geologist and oceanographer Kathy Sullivan, biochemist Shannon Lucid, and doctors Anna Fisher and Rhea Seddon.
They shared something remarkable in common: None of them had been trained to fly jets, although Resnik, Lucid and Seddon had some pilot experience. The space shuttle program added the new role of “mission specialist,” which did not require flight experience. “NASA was able to open up the criteria to people like scientists and doctors. … So that allowed not just women and people of color, but more people from different backgrounds to join the program,” Grush said.
Decades later, some of the questions reporters have asked them are shocking to read
A reporter’s 1983 question asking Ride about crying during training was in keeping with comments from many journalists at the time, and that perspective was also echoed in descriptions of The Six in print and broadcast reports.
“When introducing the women on television, one anchor would read their names one by one, followed by each woman’s marital status and emphasizing those who were single,” Grush writes. “Various articles referred to them as ‘girls’ or ‘ladies in space,’ and dedicated writers made a point to include ages, heights and weights in their descriptions.”
In a television interview quoted in the book,…