Early in 1977, like any sensible graduate student approaching the final year of a doctoral program, Sally Ride was perusing Stanford University newspapers and bulletin boards in search of jobs.
One day, she saw an announcement in the campus daily. NASA was looking for young scientists to become astronauts--"mission specialists" who would take charge of experiments aboard the space shuttle. Women were urged to apply.
Fireworks exploded in Ride's head. Until that moment, she has no memory of ever having wanted to be an astronaut.
"I honestly never thought about doing it, seriously or unseriously," she said. "It never even occurred to me. I thought I was going to get a job . . . doing research in free-electron laser physics, and then work at a university doing research and teaching. That's what physicists do."
There had been strange foreshadowings of her future, but no conscious plans. As a child and teen-ager, she had followed the space program on television, but it had never been one of her obsessions. Yet, in 1968, she had entered Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia knowing she wanted to pursue astrophysics, and had taken an astronomy course as a freshman.
The following year, a sports story in a Delaware County, Pa., newspaper, reporting her victory in a women's tennis tournament, began: "Sally Ride, an 18-year-old sophomore at Swarthmore College, may one day be the first woman astronaut, but for the moment she is the No. 1 woman college tennis player in the East."
Ride does not recall telling the paper's reporter that "she hopes she has what it takes to make a space team," yet the clipping bears witness to the fact that space travel had crossed her mind.
Ride's decision eight years later to apply to NASA made sense to William Colson, who was then Ride's close friend and fellow graduate student and is now a professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
"In personal conversations, I know she--as all of us do--would begin to think, 'Well, I'm not going to win a Nobel prize, so what am I going to do?' " he said. "Sally's earlier history in tennis, I think, gave her . . . a need for something that had some glamour to it, something that was visible. She had been exposed to that at an age when most people aren't."
She was nearing completion of her doctoral thesis in 1977, just as NASA began its search for 35 new astronauts to fly in the space shuttle. For the first time, the agency had decided to include women, according to Carolyn L. Huntoon, Johnson Space Center's deputy chief for personnel development.
"Because we had a new spacecraft, and it was going to be built so that it had space inside it . . . and could have toilet facilities that could accommodate women, . . . and, I think, because at that time in our country, people were feeling a little bit bad about the way they had treated women, . . . they said, 'It's a federal job and we're going to open it to all races, sexes, religious backgrounds and ages,' " she said.
Ride recalled that she knew nothing about what she was applying for at NASA.
"I had no idea--which is amazing to me," she said. "It didn't even occur to me that I'd get accepted. I thought I'd get into the last group."
Forty miles down the California coast, another graduate student, a lanky, redheaded astronomer named Steven Hawley, was finishing a degree at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Hawley spotted the same NASA announcement and, in the same spirit, filled out the long federal employment application.
Several months later, in September, 1977, he traveled to Houston in one of the first groups of 20 chosen from among more than 8,000 applicants who were interviewed for the job of mission specialist. Ride was interviewed in October.
Neither Ride nor Hawley, who met in the space shuttle program and were married last July, knew what they had to do to qualify as an astronaut. "I didn't know whether they were going to throw us into a centrifuge or hang us from the ceiling by our toes," Ride said.
During about a week at Johnson Space Center "we spent some period of time just in briefings, with them telling us about the shuttle, and some time just wandering around, and some time getting physicals," she said. "There was a standard exam that was no more thorough than any medical exam. Then we saw an ophthalmologist, and we got on a treadmill to do a stress test" for heart performance during exercise.
They also were given a hearing test and an electroencephalogram or EEG, which measures brain waves for evidence of seizures or other abnormalities. "That was the only thing that I was surprised we had," Ride said.
"We saw two psychiatrists for about 45 minutes each," she recalled. "One of them was generally exactly what I had always pictured from a psychiatrist, who showed you the comfortable chair . . . and then asked you how you felt about your sister. Then the other . . . was sort of the bad-guy psychiatrist, who tried to rattle you."
Hawley said he has looked since for a common pattern in the personalities of those who were chosen. He said the only thing he discovered was that, when asked by the psychiatrists whether they had ever had amnesia, everyone who was picked apparently replied, "I don't know, I can't remember."
The single most important factor in the competition was a two- to three-hour interview of each candidate by the astronaut selection committee, composed of a few astronauts and space center administrators. The questions were exhaustive, covering each individual's background, education, research, hobbies, and even politics.
"They asked me, 'What do you think of Andrew Young?' " Hawley said. "They asked a number of other people about the Panama Canal."
He recalled one test that appeared designed to put the applicants under stress.
"They put you in what's called the crystal rescue sphere," a little round compartment made of fabric, designed for an astronaut to transport a fellow crew member in case the crew must transfer from one vehicle to another without enough space suits to go around.
"You were alone--it seats one," Hawley said. "But I figured it couldn't last longer than half a day," he said.
Although NASA first recruited scientists as astronauts in 1964, it had been 10 years since any new ones were selected. The agency had decided to try a new approach, according to Huntoon, who served on the selection committee, because some of the scientists chosen previously had later dropped out. This time the space agency was looking for applicants who understood what they were getting into and were willing to devote their entire careers to the space program.
"They had to be very good in what they were doing. And yet they had to be willing to give it up to do more general things," Huntoon said. "They had to understand that they would be Indians when they got here. That's a little bit difficult to accept when people have excelled in their fields."
Huntoon said the interviewers took care to emphasize the unromantic aspects of being an astronaut: long, dull, technical meetings, no personal laboratory facilities, no private secretaries.
The selection committee used candidates' academic records to make a first cut, and then required everyone to pass the same standard physical and psychiatric examination. Blood pressure and hearing had to be normal, vision correctable to 20/20, height 60 to 76 inches. There could be no history of significant illnesses, such as heart disease or kidney stones. There was no age limit.
There was no attempt to rank the candidates on the basis of the physical or psychological test results.
"There were no gradations--this one's better or worse, this one's stronger or weaker, this one's slightly crazy, this one's completely crazy," Huntoon said. "They either passed or failed."
She added that, at her insistence, the women were not questioned about aspects of their lives that would not be considered in selecting men. They were not asked about plans for child-bearing, or whether their spouses would mind moving to Houston.
But she said the committee looked for poise and self-confidence in the women they chose, knowing that they would be subjected to the pressures of intense public scrutiny and an overwhelmingly male environment at NASA.
To make their final choice, the committee relied most heavily on the recommendations each candidate received from other scientists in their fields, and on how they handled tough questions posed by committee members during the interview.
Since the mission specialists would be spending much of their time working with clients in the research, communications and defense industries who would contract for space on shuttle flights, Huntoon added, their technical and social skills were paramount. Ride scored high on both counts.
"I think physically, just looking at Sally, you can tell she is extremely aware," she said. "She's got a twinkle in her eye . . . . In board interviews, she was able to talk to us honestly about the questions we had . . . everything from, 'What instrument did you play in the high school band?' to 'Why did you do that?' And from the background information we had on her, . . . it was obvious that she was an extremely independent, bright young woman."
When the interviews were over, Ride went back to Stanford, worked on her thesis, and waited. She had been told she would hear from NASA by early December, 1977. But the weeks passed and nothing happened.
At last, early on the morning of Jan. 16, 1978, she awoke to the insistent ringing of the telephone. It was George W.S. Abbey, the space center's director of flight operations.
"Well," he said, "we've got a job here for you, if you're still interested in taking it."
"Yes, sir!" said Sally Ride. NEXT: The training