No matter how hard it tries to play it down, NASA cannot hide the fact that the first woman to fly into space for the United States is scheduled to take off with four men from Kennedy Space Center in Florida this Saturday.
No astronaut since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon has been so besieged by the media as Sally K. Ride. The Public Affairs Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston has been getting at least 30 requests a day for the past two months for interviews with Ride--requests from as far as Japan and Australia on one side of the world to Great Britain, Germany and France on the other.
Ride was on the cover of Newsweek magazine last week and she is scheduled to be on the cover of People magazine this week. She has been profiled in Profile magazine, adored in Ms. and featured in Time. On TV, she has been seen on "Good Morning America," "Nightline" and "Today." She has been interviewed at length by all three major networks in special segments of news shows.
So interested are the media and the public in Ride's trip into space that the motels in the vicinity of the central Florida launch site are booked almost solid for about 50 miles south to Melbourne Beach and 60 miles west to Orlando.
The Brevard County Chamber of Commerce estimates that at least a half-million people will turn out to watch the seventh launch in the space shuttle program, and the police of neighboring counties are estimating crowds will fill their beaches to swell the number of "bird-watchers" to more than one million. That could make it the largest crowd to witness a space launch since Armstrong's Apollo 11 flew to the moon in July, 1969.
By last Friday, NASA had received 1,600 requests for press passes to cover Ride's flight, far more than it usually has in hand a week before flight time. Reporters who covered only the first shuttle flight two years ago are returning to cover this one. Newspapers like the San Antonio Express and the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., are sending reporters for the first time. Twice as many women journalists as usual who turn out for a shuttle launch are on their way to Florida to cover this one.
What makes the flight even more spellbinding to the space-watching public is the fact that Challenger will land back at the Kennedy Space Center six days after it takes off. It will be the first Florida landing for the shuttle, which landed five times at Edwards Air Force Base in California and once at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
"The only decent place to witness the landing is a five-mile stretch along the Indian River in Titusville," William Lyerly, director of the local chamber of commerce said last week. "Since we've never had a landing here before, we don't know what to expect but if there's any more than half a million people out there, it's going to be godawful chaos."
So there you have it. A space flight made even more spectacular by the fact that the first American woman will be on board, it will be the first Florida landing and it is in the middle of June, when almost all the schools are out. You can already hear the radio stations digging out "Mustang Sally," the 1966 Motown song written by Bonny Rice:
"All you want to do is ride around Sally--Ride, Sally, Ride."