When Sally Ride and five other women reported for astronaut training at Houston's Johnson Space Center in July, 1978, they entered the citadel of the "right stuff." Inside this 1,600-acre enclave, acronyms and computer commands were the native tongue, and technical expertise and test-pilot cool the ticket to a ride in space.
Some of the men they were joining had molded their lives around being astronauts and had been waiting as long as 12 years for their turns to fly. Now "35 new guys" had arrived to usher in the era of the earth-orbiting, reusable space shuttle, and six of them were women.
The newcomers would have to prove themselves, because most of what they needed to learn could not be found in training manuals. Carolyn L. Huntoon, the center's deputy chief of personnel development, remembered that one of the women "asked me, were there any rules. I said, 'Yeah, lots of rules.' She asked me, were they written down. I said, 'No.' She asked me, would anyone tell 'em to her. I said, 'Probably not.' "
At first, the new astronaut-candidates, as they were called during their first year, could enjoy photo sessions, travel and flight training in NASA's sleek, white, two-seat T38 jets.
"Oh, that was fun," Ride recalled. "They got us in flight suits and fitted us for helmets and gave us survival instruction. My first flight in a T38 was like a week after we got here."
To Ride's surprise, learning to fly a jet was not frightening. "Physically, it doesn't feel any different," she said. "We fly along at the same speed the airliners fly . . . but it's kind of like driving along with the top of a car down. You've got a great view. That's what's neat about it."
Even being in the jet trainer when it rolled did not upset her. "You get yourself jumbled up, and it's fun," Ride said. "But in your stomach, it's no different than things you've been exposed to if you've been on Ferris wheels and various rides."
But the rest of Ride's first year of training was alarmingly like starting graduate school all over again: hours of lectures on engineering and computer science, charts and manuals and diagrams covering every aspect of the space shuttle, and instruction in sciences that were new to her but important for space research, such as geology, oceanography and biochemistry.
The six women were not the only new feature of the space shuttle program for the space center. A large proportion of the 35 astronaut-candidates, who ranged from bookish graduate students to combat pilots decorated for service in Vietnam, were research scientists without experience as pilots.
Astronaut Robert L. Crippen, who spent 12 years at the space center before finally going into space as pilot on the shuttle's first flight in 1981, said he was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly the women fitted in. "The only thing we noticed was we had to add a ladies' room to the gym," he said.
But he was struck by the difference in atmosphere caused by those who had grown up hoping to be scientists rather than pilots. "I personally was excited by aviation from as far back as I can remember," Crippen said. "I don't think so many of the people we ended up with, starting with the '78 . . . selection, had so specifically tailored their careers around the possibility of becoming an astronaut."
At the end of the year of classroom training Ride and the other newcomers were separated and assigned to various offices at the space center and at Cape Canaveral, where each would work under experienced astronauts on projects related to the space shuttle. It was the real beginning of the process of molding them into astronauts.
Ride was assigned to the remote manipulation system (RMS), the shuttle's computer-operated mechanical arm, located in the cargo bay, which was being designed and built in Canada. Her boss was Bill Lenoir, a scientist-astronaut who flew on the shuttle's fifth trip last November, and one of her co-workers was John Fabian, an Air Force pilot and engineer who, 39, had been selected with Ride and had become one of her closest friends.
The RMS job demanded technical understanding and political skill. Ride attended many meetings between the RMS staff and engineers designing other parts of the shuttle, planning how to coordinate the arm's functions. She and her colleagues traveled frequently to Toronto, where Spar Aerospace Ltd., the company designing the arm, had built a computer simulator to develop and test it.
"When we'd find problems with the arm, they'd simulate it and we'd go up and tell them whether it was a problem or whether it didn't matter too much," she said.
Ride found herself caught up more and more in this work, and less involved in her old interests, free-electron laser physics. Huntoon, who was not surprised, said work on specialized engineering projects was a critical part of training for the new astronauts.
"This is an engineering world," Huntoon said. "Personally, you sense that you're losing your identity as a scientist . You have to learn to be an Indian and work with the working people here at the center. To gain the confidence of these working-level people, you have to participate and technically contribute. You have to be careful, though, because . . . the word 'astronaut' is still a little bit magic. If Sally Ride says, 'I don't want that,' . . . that dominoes through the system . . . . Sooner or later a memo comes out saying, 'Sally Ride doesn't want that,' and some program gets canceled."
Ride earned praise from colleagues at the space center and in Canada on the mechanical arm project.
"She took to working that RMS like a duck takes to water, and really got some good vibes from all the people in that area," Huntoon recalled. "It was designed for pilots, but she was doing better than the pilots were doing very early on."
After a year, when Bill Lenoir moved to a new assignment, Ride was given his former job as head of the RMS office.
The six women astronaut-candidates confronted subtle extra pressure to prove themselves, according to Huntoon. Their responses were measured during heated technical arguments with male colleagues, or when, at the beginning of a meeting, someone would say indignantly, "But there's no one here from the astronaut office," forgetting that one of the women astronauts was present.
While there was camaraderie among all 35 members of Ride's group that extended to parties and practical jokes, there was no special bond among the six women. Neither was there was a strong sense of competition. Yet, in the back of everyone's mind were the questions: when, and how, will I get to fly?
"That's what we came here to do is to fly, and you'd like to fly as early as possible," said Dr. Rhea Seddon, a surgeon who was one of the other six women. "But how these decisions are made, nobody knows. I guess we were, in somebody's eyes, competing, but I never had the feeling that we were competing against each other. It's kind of difficult to fight tooth and nail when you don't know what the rules of the game are . . . . About the only thing you can do is work as hard and do as well as you can."
There was one rule, according to Huntoon, that had nothing to do with engineering ability or hand-eye coordination. It was a matter of personality, a holdover from the profile of the original astronauts as test pilots, men who never lost control and who could joke at moments of extreme danger. The rule was to stay cool, to "keep an even keel," no matter what.
"Judgment is evaluated constantly," Huntoon said. "In their private lives, they can do anything they want to do. But if they do something that's really dumb, it's looked upon as bad judgment. If you smart off in a meeting to somebody, even if they deserved it, it's a little tick off . . . . Everyone's big thing around here, their big expression, is, 'Don't screw up.' "
When Ride or one of the other women came to her upset about something, Huntoon said she would warn the astronaut-candidate against making too much of a fuss. She would tell her, Huntoon said, "Well, it's not worth a silver bullet--maybe a bronze one. You only have so many of 'em to use."
Ride's strength under pressure, cultivated during her years of tournament tennis, was soon recognized and rewarded. No one recognized it sooner than John Fabian, her colleague on the RMS team and her frequent flying partner. Fabian, a veteran of 90 combat missions in Southeast Asia, was impressed.
"She's very cool--a very cool operator," he said. "She understands the airplane, she's a superb copilot, and she is an excellent pilot. We'll get out over the Gulf of Mexico and start rolling the airplane upside down . . . and once in a while, she'll say, from the back of the airplane, 'You just don't enjoy this enough.' "
In January, 1981, Ride started a job regarded by many as a milestone on the road to being selected for a shuttle mission. She began training to be a "capcom," or capsule communicator, for the space shuttle Columbia's second flight.
The maiden flight, with astronauts Crippen as pilot and John W. Young as commander, was not to take place until April, 1981. The second Columbia flight, scheduled for the following November, would be the first for the mechanical arm. Because of Ride's experience with the arm, she was picked as a capcom and a member of the support crew for the second and third flights.
The capcom--a term left over from the Apollo moon landings era when spacecraft were still "capsules"--is the astronaut assigned to Mission Control in Houston to talk to the crew on air-to-ground radio. The capcom sits next to the flight director--the engineer in Mission Control who coordinates all systems and makes all decisions during the space flight--and relays information and instructions between the space center and the astronauts.
Each shuttle flight has several capcoms who work at different times. All the capcom astronauts automatically become members of the flight's support team.
Ride, who remained a support crew member until the end of the third shuttle flight in March, 1982, had to know the shuttle's equipment--particularly that which controlled the arm--well enough to be able to tell the crew in which drawer to look for replacement parts in case of a malfunction. She had to learn to operate switches and repair broken items as if she were in flight.
But the job wasn't all work. One of her projects was to arrange a special Muppets medley, adapted from the episodes of "Pigs in Space," to serve as wakeup music for the second shuttle crew. Another was to win the football war she was waging with shuttle commander Joe H. Engel.
The football war was an offshoot of Ride's flirtation with fellow astronaut Steve Hawley, who was stationed at Cape Canaveral helping to prepare for the shuttle's second flight. Hawley and Engel were both Kansans and fans of the University of Kansas Jayhawks. Ride is a lifelong supporter of the UCLA Bruins.
The object of the game was to plaster each rivals' belongings with the name of one's favorite football team. Ride put Bruins decals on Engel's and Hawley's lockers at the space center. They put Jayhawks stickers and license-holders on her car. She replaced their gym clothes with Bruins sweatsuits.
Ride administered the coup de grace during the takeoff of the second shuttle flight. She arranged to have a Bruins sticker affixed to Engel's helmet and a Jayhawks sticker to that of his pilot, astronaut Richard H. Truly. Engel and Truly looked at each other's helmets and chuckled to themselves, but neither realized what he was wearing until the shuttle was in orbit and they took off their helmets.
Ride's performance as capcom particularly impressed Crippen, the astronaut who had served as pilot on the shuttle's first flight and was scheduled to command its seventh this year. Crippen had a big hand in the shuttle design and in the selection of Ride's group of astronauts. Crippen later would help select the crew for his own flight, the first to include astronauts from Ride's group.
"I like people that don't get too excited, too emotional, that keep a fairly even keel," Crippen said. "Those kinds of people work well with me, and I had to take my own personality into account. Sally is a very smart lady . . . . She's also capable of having good, common, country-boy horse sense."
In March, 1982, after the successful third shuttle flight, Ride momentarily was in limbo. Her duties as capcom were over; she was told to take some time off.
A few weeks later, on a Monday morning in April, a secretary called Ride out of the astronauts' weekly meeting and told her that George W.S. Abbey, the space center's director of flight operations, wanted to see her.
"I have to admit," Ride said, "I sort of knew what it was about. He basically said, 'Um, how do you like the job you've got now ?' "
"I said, 'Well, what is my job ?' "
"He said, 'We thought that maybe you enjoyed what you were doing so much that maybe you wouldn't want to fly on a crew.' "
When Ride assured him to the contrary, he escorted her upstairs to talk to Christopher Kraft, then director of the space center. "I think he Kraft wanted to give me a chance to back out," she said. "What he wanted . . . was to give me the pep talk about how it was going to be hard for me, and did I want to handle all the responsibility, and if I hadn't thought about it, I'd better think about it fast."
Ride said she had thought about it. So Abbey took her back to his office and held her prisoner until Crippen and Fabian, two of her crew members, could get there. Then they called the fourth member, pilot Frederick Hauck, who was in San Antonio making a public appearance. (A fifth crewman, physician Norman Thagard, was added in December.)
Afterward, Ride and Fabian, sworn to silence until later that day, strolled over to the space center cafeteria and celebrated in secret.
Huntoon remembers the day Ride's crew was announced. Huntoon was torn between delight for those of the "35 new guys" chosen for the seventh and eighth shuttle flights and sympathy for those still waiting.
"I was so excited, as well as I had such a letdown, and I knew exactly how everyone in this office must have felt," Huntoon said. "Somebody had to be first, and everyone was adult enough to understand that, but everyone is an achiever, and they're used to being first. There was a dip in this office--I felt it.
"I called her Ride up and I said, 'You got it!' "
"She said, 'Yeah.' "
"I said, 'Now, be nice.' "
"She said, 'Yes, ma'am.' " NEXT: Inside the simulator