Dr. Sally K. Ride, the astrophysicist who became the first American woman astronaut to go into outer space, has carried with her the hopes and aspirations of countless American women who have wanted a reaffirmation that women can continue to break barriers in these rather challenging times. Her message to earth is not simply, "I did it," although no one can ever take that away from her. Her message is also, "You can do it, too."
For a while, news stories about the "first woman" to do something seemed a thing of the past. But Ride's flight, the reactions to it and the media coverage of it show that women still have a long way to go.
Right now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is riding the crest of the most famous flight since the moon landing, but it is worth noting that there is nothing praiseworthy about the length of time it has taken the agency to launch a female astronaut. It has been 22 years since the first man went up and only in 1978 did NASA accept six female "mission specialists" into the manned space program, one of them being Ride.
To fly, women first had to break into the tightly knit world of the fighter pilot, a world into which Scott F. Williams of the Associated Press offered a piercing insight: "In 1962, when several women pilots sought a congresssional hearing to push for female participation as astronauts, NASA trotted out its most famous name--John Glenn--to testify. On July 17, 1962, according to one account, he said: 'The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.' "
An aide to Glenn said recently that the astronaut-turned-presidential candidate always believed that women would become an important part of the space program once it was past the stage of needing top-flight pilots and into the stage of needing top-flight scientists.
The requirements for astronauts in the space program have changed, perhaps more than the social order has. Consider the kinds of questions Ride had to put up with from the press: Would the flight affect her reproductive organs? Did she intend to become a mother after her flight? Does she weep when things go wrong in flight simulations? Does she think women ought to be astronauts?
The four male astronauts flanking her at her first news conference were asked if they would defer to her because she is a woman and whether she would be an "inconvenience."
Most newspapers have allowed her name to overwhelm the convention of referring to newsmakers by their last names in headlines--Schultz, not George, Andropov, not Yuri. Hence we see headlines on front pages such as "Sally's Ride Into History" and "Ride, Sally, Ride," and so forth. The New York Times, it is worth noting, did not indulge. It described her in headlines as the first U.S. woman in space, and as a physicist, drawing attention to her credentials, rather than trivializing her by referring to her by her first name.
Ride has become, at least for the moment, the single most visible woman in the world, and she has handled the challenge magnificently. It is to NASA's credit that it chose a woman who was unquestionably the best person for that flight. The mind boggles at the thought of what would have happened had the first American woman in space gotten sick or hysterical, as did the first of the two Russian women, who was rushed into orbit badly prepared.
It is clear, however, that she wishes the challenge had not been there. She made the point well at her news conference on May 24, the same news conference where she had to endure a string of chauvinistic questions from unreconstructed members of the media. "It may be too bad that our society isn't further along and that this is such a big deal," she said.
Part of the present social order may not be all that far along, but part of the coming social order is. One evening before the launch, the resident 7-year-old was listening to the newscast. He came to the dinner table, appalled. "We've been sending people into space for 22 years and this is the first time we've sent a woman into space?" he said, climbing into his seat. "That's ridiculous. Why shouldn't women go into space? What's such a big deal about that?"
Progress takes time, sometimes more than we want to give it. But it's nice to know it's happening.