There were 208 men and women selected last November to be finalists in the astronaut competition and as early as 7 a.m. yesterday, all 208 began getting phone calls.
Most of the calls were what writers call "rejection slips," the kind of call that isn't especially good news. You were not chosen because your eye-sight isn't good enough, you were not picked because you had a hernia, you weren't selected because you're a little too old. That kind of thing. Two minutes on the phone to a disembied voice calling from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. One rejected applicant said he was "devastated."
There were 34 "good-news" calls --six to women, three to black men and to a Japanese-American born and raised in Hawaii. A 35th call wasn't made because the recipient was aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. All 35 are the "new" astronauts, the first picked in 11 years and likely the last to be picked for another 11 years.
Who made it? How did the space agency decide on the 35 qualified applicants? How was the decision reached to reject the other 163? To hear those tell it who were involved, the decisions were made mostly for all the right reasons and partly for reasons that can best be called political.
There was little question the space agency had to pick blacks and women this time around. The last time astronauts were chosen, in August of 1967, 11 white men were chosen to join the astronaut corps. One black applicant was rejected. Another was killed in a plane crash before he could be picked. No women reached the final selection process.
This time, 21 women made it to the finals and the six who were picked appear to have been selected for the right reasons. Sally Ride, onetime tennis pro, an X-ray astronomer from Stanford University; Judith Resnick, Ph.D. engineer with Xerox in El Segundo, Calif., and called a "sure-fire" candidate by the other astronauts; Shannon Lucid, born in Shanghai, mother of three, a Ph. D. biochemist at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
"When Lucid was taken for a ride in the back seat of a T-38 (jet trainer) for the first time," said Dr. Christopher C. Kraft Jr., director of the Johnson Space Center, "she said it was torture not being able to fly the airplane."
The chosen blacks all seem able enough to step right into the space shuttle when it flies. Maj. Guion Bluford Jr., an F-11 pilot in the Air Force; Maj. Frederick D. Gregory, an F-15 pilot in the Air Force; Ronald McNair, a Ph.D. physicist at M.I.T. who is also a musician and one time state judo champion in Massachusetts.
Other things were done differently this time. No applicant had to suffer a test in the centrifuge machine, where human beings are whirled around a track at incredible speeds to see if they're prone to motion sickness. Nobody was given a blank piece of paper and asked: "What do you see on that paper?" Nobody was given a Rorschach Test and asked what he saw in the ink blots.
That is not to say the applicants avoided psychiatrists. They didn't, having to sit through interviews with two separate psychiatrists nicknamed "Psy One" and "Psy Two" by the applicants. "One was a father figure," one applicant said, "and the other was the buddy, the good friend figure." One measure of how times change is that the applicants said they felt less comfortable with the father figure.
The applicants were asked some of the same questions, no matter what their sex, race or background. Describe any life-threatening experiences you've had. Do you scuba dive? Parachute jump? Mountain climb? "There was no question," one applicant said, "that they were looking for people who'd done these things."
Women were asked how they'd react to "running around in their underwear" with men in space. Men were asked how they'd react to seeing women in their underwear in space. Suppose you were in a disabled space shuttle and there was only one space suit and six people left? You're the one who gets the space suit but you're the one who's responsible for carrying the others in plastic golf balls to the rescue ship. How will you react if you drop the first person and he dies? Would you go back for the others?
Everybody got at least one political question.One was asked her opinion on the Panama Canal. Another for his opinion on U.S. policy toward Northern Ireland. One black candidate was asked what he would do about South Africa if he were President.
The Jewish applicants were all asked what they thought about U.S. policy in the Middle East. The whites were asked if they'd fly willingly with blacks, the men were asked if they'd fly with women and the women with men. Everybody was asked if they'd fly with Russians. So far as is known, everybody said yes to all these questions. "I'd fly with little green men," one woman said, "if it meant getting a chance in space."