A female voice came floating down from space today after the shuttle Challenger roared into Earth orbit with a crew of four men and a 32-year-old astronaut from California named Sally K. Ride, the first American woman to fly into space.
"Have you ever been to Disneyland?" Ride asked Mission Control Center in Houston after she and astronauts Robert L. Crippen, Frederick H. Hauck, John M. Fabian and Norman E. Thagard flew into Earth orbit this morning as the shuttle began its seventh journey into space. "Well, this is definitely an E ticket," a reference to the high-priced ticket that Disneyland used to sell for admittance to its best rides and attractions.
Before the day was over, Ride had primed the 50-foot-long robot arm she will exercise later in the week grappling and retrieving a 3,200-pound instrument package. She had also shared with Fabian the task of deploying a seven-ton communications satellite called Anik (Eskimo for "Little Brother") from the shuttle's cargo bay for the Canadian government, which will use it to carry telephone calls and television broadcasts across most of North America.
Said Ride succinctly, in typical astronaut fashion, "This sure is fun."
The Anik satellite was fired later in the day into a higher orbit that is supposed to place it above the equator at an altitude of 22,400 miles.
When Ride and Fabian deployed the Canadian satellite, they sounded as if it were more than fun. Said Fabian, matter-of-factly: "As advertised, Anik was deployed on time. There were no anomalies during the deployment sequence." Echoed Ride: "That makes the Orbiter 3-for-3 on PAM" deploys. (PAM is the engine used on the communications satellite it was used by the fifth shuttle crew to deploy two identical satellites last November.
The shuttle's flight was fun, too, for the estimated half-million people who crowded the beaches of Florida's "space coast" and for the "very important women" NASA had invited to watch Ride's journey into space history.
Among the women who came to the Kennedy Space Center were feminist Gloria Steinem, film star Jane Fonda, a half-dozen congresswomen and a dozen prominent American businesswomen, including Chase Manhattan Vice President Elaine Bond and First Boston Managing Director Carol Einiger. For the first time, there were more women than men at what NASA blandly calls its "VIP site."
President Reagan, in his weekly radio address from Camp David, Md., said that Ride is an example of the great strides women have made, wished the crew well and added, "Nancy and I look forward to being on hand to greet them when they land next Friday."
If there were any doubts that America's first female astronaut would make it into space, they were quickly dispelled at 7:33 this morning when Challenger rose from Launch Pad 39A in a fiery roar that rattled the beaches for miles around. In less than three minutes, the 100-ton "spaceliner" was out of sight in nearly cloudless skies and on its way to the seventh straight flawless liftoff the shuttle has made from Earth.
"The United States is flying the largest human payload in the history of the space age," said a voice from Mission Control in tones so flat that it was as if it happened every day. "Four men and one woman."
So routine do the shuttle flights seem that launch directors found it hard to make this morning's flight sound as if it were not routine.
"It was as smooth a countdown as any we've ever had," Launch Operations Director Alfred D. O'Hara said at the Kennedy Space Center two hours after liftoff. "The one problem that did occur, the team jumped on real quick, and we didn't even hold stop the count. I'm real proud to be associated with the men and women who make up this launch team."
"There's not much to say when it goes as well as this one's going so far," Flight Director Jay Greene said later from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "There were no systems problems at all during ascent and the flight into orbit. Everything went as planned. And we're right where we want to be in a circular orbit," at 190 miles altitude.
Sounding for all the world as if she'd been in space a dozen times, Ride settled into the routine set by the 57 men who preceded her into space.
"Roger," she said. "That's affirmative," she said. "Negative," she said. "Stand by," she said, until her voice seemed to blend with the background hiss and hum of the air-to-ground communications. It was almost as if women had always been making these flights, almost as if women were always along side the men as they made their way from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to Skylab and now to the space shuttle.
Though she made space history for the United States, Ride is the third woman to go into space. She followed two Russian women, Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew into space last August, and Valentina Tereshkova, who 20 years ago became the first woman in space.
Ride sounded relaxed and ready for space from the moment she and her four male colleagues stepped aboard the "spaceliner" this morning. The last person to speak to the crew before it left the Earth was Ride's husband, astronaut Steve Hawley, who next year is scheduled to make the 12th flight of the space shuttle.
Said Hawley, "Sally, have a ball."