Sally Ride and the Women of NASA

As a girl growing up in the 1980s, Sally Ride was my hero.

Mission Specialist (MS) Ride at forward flight deck pilots stations controls.

On forward flight deck of Challenger, Mission Specialist (MS) Ride reclines above pilot’s seat in front of pilot’s station control panels. Forward control panels and windows appear on her right and seat back with stowage bag and personal egress air pack (PEAP) and mission station on her left. Earth’s cloud-covered surface is visible outside windows. 255-STS-s07-14-629

At that young age, I didn’t yet understand all of the battles women had fought for equality, but if I declared that I was going to be an astronaut someday, no one could dismiss my dream offhand and tell me that was a man’s job. Sally had already proven them wrong.

In January 1978, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected Dr. Ride, along with six other women, to be a member of NASA Astronaut Group 8. She completed a year of training and served on the ground as the Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) for the second and third space shuttle missions. Then, on June 18, 1983, Dr. Ride blasted off aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-7, the seventh shuttle flight) as a Mission Specialist, becoming the first American woman in space.

While certainly the most high-profile, the female members of Astronaut Group 8 were hardly the first women to be employed by NASA, or even to train as astronauts. Prior to the advent of computers, women calculated trajectories and test results at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at Langley Research Center (initially under the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor agency). In the 1960s, there was a secret program to select and train female astronauts, who became known as the Mercury 13. Though they performed as well as the male candidates in the testing phase, NASA abruptly ended the program in 1962.

Marjorie Townsend worked as an electrical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center beginning in 1959. Townsend had graduated high school at the age of 15 and was the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from George Washington University. She helped develop the TIROS-1 and Nimbus weather satellites and became the first woman to manage a spacecraft launch for NASA in 1970.

NASA chose to highlight Townsend in a 1964 television series called Space: Man’s Great Adventure. The episode dedicated to Townsend, titled “The Woman’s Touch”, begins with a typical domestic scene that is quickly subverted when she leaves the breakfast table to head off to her engineering job. Throughout the episode, Townsend explains complex satellite systems to viewers and demonstrates the work that goes into developing one such system. There is no question that she is a valued member of the NASA Goddard team.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11375, which prohibited sex discrimination in Federal employment. The resulting Federal Women’s Program was moved into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1969 in response to Executive Order 11478. These executive orders initiated sweeping changes in employment opportunities for women across the Federal government, including at NASA. In 1981, the Federal Women’s Program Office of the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity Programs released an 18-page brochure highlighting the roles of women in all categories of work, from printing press operator to Assistant Associate Administrator for Space Science.

Also in 1981, NASA produced a film titled Space for Women, containing interviews with female employees about their work and how they prepared to pursue a particular field at NASA. In the film, directed by noted African-American filmmaker William Greaves and narrated by Ricardo Montalbán (Star Trek’s Khan), we are introduced to women across the agency who worked in STEM fields and support roles. At this time the Space Shuttle program was just beginning and the film is imbued with the optimism that accompanied a new era of space flight. For the first time, the job of astronaut was open to all qualified Americans, regardless of gender.

The women interviewed in Space for Women are Patricia S. Cowings (Research Psychologist), Ivelisse Rodriguez (Audio Visual Specialist), Trudy Phillips (Public Information Specialist), Angelita Castro-Kelly (Mathematician/Technical Management), Kathryn D. Sullivan (Astronaut-Mission Specialist), Brenda Willis (Safety Specialist), Shirley Chevalier (Electrical Engineer), Susan Norman (Research Scientist), Sharon Orkansky (Computer Engineer), and Anna Lee Fisher (Astronaut-Mission Specialist). A shorter version of the film also exists that omits some segments.

Throughout the life of the Space Shuttle program, many more women traveled to space and steadily broke down barriers. Kathryn Sullivan became the first American woman to complete a spacewalk in 1984 (You can learn more about Sullivan in this short film). In 1992, Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space. Eileen Collins was the first female Shuttle Pilot in 1995 and the first female Shuttle Commander in 1999. And in 2013, NASA announced a new class of astronaut trainees made up of four women and four men, reaching a point of gender parity for the first time.

Though I long ago determined that astronaut training was not for me, Sally Ride and these other women provided a conduit for engagement with the space program and space science. They are likely one of the reasons I felt giddy at the success of last year’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. But most of all, they represent possibility.

Photos from mission STS-41G, October 5-13, 1984. Sally Ride and Kathryn Sullivan served as mission specialists on the sixth flight of Space Shuttle Challenger.