Sally Ride: Ready for Liftoff


From a systems-engineering standpoint, it is easy to identify the point where Sally K. Ride began to leave the rest of the world behind. A flow chart of her life would show the crucial decision coming one day in 1977, when -- as a 25-year-old astrophysicist winding up her doctoral work at Stanford University -- she spotted an announcement in the campus newspaper about openings in the astronaut program, a career she had never even contemplated for herself. In what once would have been called an epiphany -- but she herself would probably describe as a go/no-go decision node -- she was up and out of the room before she had finished reading the notice, one of more than 1,000 women and nearly 7,000 men to apply for what would ultimately be the 35 slots in the astronaut class of 1978. Not everyone's life resolves itself so neatly into yesor-no decisions, taken in an instant and never looked back upon or regretted, but, if Sally Ride's life proves anything, it is that the very smart are different from you and me.

For one thing, they get to go up in space. Early on the morning of Saturday, June 18, if all goes according to the mission profile, Ride will strap herself into an aft seat on the flight deck of the space shuttle Challenger, and, 44 minutes and 23.7 seconds after its thunderous launch from Cape Canaveral, will reach the final orbiting position beyond the fringe of the earth's atmosphere. Commanding the flight will be Navy Capt. Robert L. Crippen -- a veteran of the first shuttle mission, two years ago last April -- who specifically requested Ride for his crew. Three other space rookies, all men, will also be aboard. The six-day mission, the seventh in the shuttle series and the second for the Challenger, will include launching two communications satellites and the first use of the shuttle's 50-foot-long remote manipulator arm. With Ride and Air Force Lt. Col. John M. Fabian at the controls, the arm will be used to deploy and retrieve a package of scientific experiments (page 38). It will take the most advanced rocket engines in the world to do it, and some minor modifications to the on-board water closet, but -- 22 years, 36 manned missions and 57 astronauts after the first Mercury capsule splashed into the Atlantic -- a woman will wear the Stars and Stripes into space.

Space itself is not expected to be changed much by the event. It is a milestone for women surely, even though there is no reason to believe that being allowed into space will open the doors of, say, New York's Century Club for them. "I did not come to NASA to make history," Ride told NEWSWEEK'S Pamela Abramson. "It's important to me that people don't think I was picked for the flight because I am a woman and it's time for NASA to send one." Yet that was in fact one of the things NASA had in mind when Ride and five other women were accepted as "mission specialist" astronauts in 1978.* "At that time in our country a little bit bad about feeling a little bad about the way they had treated women," is the delicate explanation given by Carolyn L. Huntoon, deputy chief for personnel development at the Johnson Space Center. Ride's mission -- which was originally scheduled for April and postponed when engine problems forced a delay in Challenger's maiden flight -- was announced more than a year ago. NASA has already scheduled its second woman crew member, Judith A. Resnik, to fly on the 12th shuttle mission in March 1984 when one of her crew mates will be Ride's husband, astronaut Steven A. Hawley.

Women have been in space before, although they have hardly left their mark on it. The first time was almost exactly 20 years ago, in the early days of what has usually been called manned spaceflight, and the woman was a 26-year-old textile-mill worker and amateur sky diver named Valentina Tereshkova, who was hustled aboard a rocket shortly before the Soviet Union was to serve as host to the World Congress of Women. The event was a notable propaganda coup, although reports since then have held that poor Tereshkova was sick for most of the three-day mission. Last August, in plenty of time to beat Ride's timetable, the Soviets launched their second woman cosmonaut, a 34-year-old test pilot and parachute ace named Svetlana Savitskaya. But when her Soyuz T-7 spaceship docked with the orbiting Salyut 7 space station, one of the two cosmonauts manning the Salyut joked that he had an apron all ready for her.

Space itself is not expected to be changed much by the event. It is a milestone for women surely, even though there is no reason to believe that being allowed into space will open the doors of, say, New York's Century Club for them.

Thus, in the long view, Ride's mission may someday take on a symbolic significance, like the arrival of the first honest woman in Nome. It may also, perhaps, come to signify the ascendancy of the mission specialist over the pilot, the astronauts who have business in space over the knights of the wild black yonder. Even though Ride, as part of her training, became a proficient jet pilot and -- as flight engineer -- would certainly be capable of flying Challenger if she had to, it is highly unlikely that she or either of the other mission specialists aboard will take the controls. The close-knit brotherhood of test pilots and fighter pilots who made up the original astronaut corps is slowly being diluted by those to whom having the "right stuff" means being able to solve quadratic equations in their heads. This trend is likely to continue, even if the spotlight shifts momentarily in an unfortunate situation where a shuttle gets into trouble 160 nautical miles from earth and the pilot has to bring it home on the traditional wing and a prayer.

One thing is certain, though: Sally Ride's life will be -- indeed, already has been -- changed forever. Tereshkova won an Order of Lenin and a Hero of Socialist Labor of Bulgaria, among many other decorations (and sits on the Central Committee of the Communist Party); the equivalent honor in America, a prime-time TV docudrama starring perhaps Jessica Lange, is a lead-pipe cinch for Ride. Already, without even having left the atmosphere, she may be the best-known American astronaut since Neil A. Armstrong. And with the days to liftoff slipping by quickly, the irrepressible horde of reporters and photographers, cameramen and talk-show hosts have begun to complain about her inaccessibility, a factor of both NASA's schedule for her and more subtle barriers she seems to set up herself. "She doesn't offer information," admits Ride's younger sister, Karen, who goes by Sally's childhood nickname for her, "Bear." "If you want to know something about Sally, you have to ask her." Clearly, Bear never tried to interview Sally, because asking doesn't always work, either. A picture of her has already begun to emerge from the brief appearances she has allowed herself: funny, ironic, thoughtful but mostly in a hurry to get on to more important things.

And, in fact, there might be more important things for her to do. With one voice, the mighty organs of the press have demanded to know if she plans to wear a bra in outer space. "There is no sag in zero G," she explains. A reporter from Time magazine -- evidently just reassigned to this country from many years in the Albanian bureau -- wanted to know if she "weeps" when she has a problem. "Why doesn't someone ask Rick [Navy Cmdr. Frederick H. Hauck, the pilot of the shuttle mission] those questions?" she responded, with a smile. On NBC's "Today" show, Jane Pauley wondered whether Ride feels she will be watched more closely than the other astronauts because she's a woman. Ride handed the question right back to Pauley: "It seems to me I ought to be asking you that question," she says.

To The Washington Post, Ride remarked that she deals with the nuisance of celebrity by flipping "the switch marked "Oblivious'." Perhaps from long hours spent among the computers of NASA's flight simulators, she has begun to think of herself in hardware metaphors. People speak with awe of her high-tech powers of concentration and logic. They were displayed to surprising advantage not in her scientific work, but as an English major at Stanford (she also majored in physics, taking five years to complete bachelor's degrees in both). "She never got less than an A in English. She wrote English papers the way she wrote science papers," recalls her roommate Molly Tyson, now a technical writer for Apple Computer, Inc. "She would turn in three pages, and that was it. But she would always see to the heart ofthings." Tyson could have predicted that her friend would be a difficult guest on talk shows. "She used to drive English seminar teachers crazy. In a seminar you're dependent on discussion. Her style is to quickly think, figure it out, crystallize it. What she said was always very convincing, so there was no need to continue." The other qualities her friends remark on are independence and self-confidence. These traits seem to serve her better now than when she was in high school and was best known for her brilliance and her doodling when she was bored, as if challenging her teacher to say something more interesting.

Naturally, the astronaut-selection process weeds out the ditherers and the spineless, but not all of the astronauts were so clearly stamped from a different mold as Sally. Mary L. Cleave, for instance, grew up dreaming of being an airline stewardess (which, interestingly, she did not qualify for; at 5 feet 2, she's too short for the crew of any craft except the space shuttle). It is impossible to imagine Sally ever wanting to be a stewardess; a test pilot, perhaps, or -- as she once confessed -- a Los Angeles Dodger. "She doesn't run around trying to make everyone happy, which most women tend to do," says Bear, who herself has an unconventional vocation as a Presbyterian minister. "Sally lives up to her own standards. What other people think of her is not of ultimate importance to her."

Tyson, looking for an anecdote that captures the essence of Sally, recalls the time Ride's Toyota broke down on a dark and deserted road in California, laid low by a burst radiator hose. Tyson assumed there was nothing to do but curl up in the back seat and wait for help to happen by. Ride, unfazed, improvised a repair with a roll of Scotch tape buried in the trunk, found a saucepan rattling around in back and set off down the road in quest of water. Within an hour they were back on the road. "I imagine she's going to be very resourceful up there [in space]," Tyson says. It also was one of the few times Tyson saw Ride pick up a saucepan. A government agent interviewed Tyson as part of a background check on Ride. "I only lied once," she recalls, "but I figured that dust and dirty dishes wouldn't accumulate in a space capsule the way they had in our apartment."

All these virtues were incubated in the pleasant Los Angeles suburb of Encino, under the benevolent, nonjudgmental, unobtrusive and uncoercive guidance of her parents -- Dale, her father, a political-science professor at Santa Monica College, and Joyce, her mother, from whom she inherited a love of the higher intellectual pursuits and a disdain for housework. "We just let them [Sally and Bear] develop normally," says Dale. "We might have encouraged, but mostly we let them explore." Just as well, perhaps; one of the few things Joyce tried to impose on her headstrong elder daughter was piano lessons, with the predictable result that today playing the piano is one of the few things Sally absolutely refuses to do. To her friend Tyson, the easygoing Rides "were not a normal family. They didn't have to sit at the same table for dinner. People ate dinner when they wanted, and they could have a whole dinner of nuts and cheese and crackers." In one sense, that is the perfect environment for bringing up an astronaut; Sally considers the dehydrated, thermostabilized space provisions on the whole "pretty good."

Ride was a remarkably gifted athlete as a youngster. (At 5 feet 5, 115 pounds, she remains in extremely good trim, although conditioning is not a requirement of her job as an astronaut.) At the age of 10 she picked up a tennis racquet and a year later began taking lessons from four-time women's national champion Alice Marble. She began going to tournaments -- chiefly, she confesses, to avoid church -- and by her teens was a nationally ranked amateur. No one knows how good she might have become; Billie Jean King watched her play in 1972 and suggested that she leave school and turn professional. If she ever wonders herself, she doesn't share the thoughts. Asked by Pauley what made her decide to stick with astrophysics, she gives a characteristically laconic and unilluminating reply: "I had a bad forehand." Bear thinks Sally lacked the "killer instinct" for professional sports, although liberal Protestant ministers are probably bad judges of killer instinct. Sally's headmaster at the Westlake School for Girls, a tony private school she attended on a partial scholarship thanks to tennis, remembers the time he made the mistake of gloating after he got a shot past her in a doubles match. "She looked at me, smiled rather malevolently and then fired," he says -- three successive drives aimed right between the eyes. Perhaps the most interesting explanation, though, comes from Ride's mother. "She stopped playing tennis because she couldn't make the ball go just where she wanted it to," Joyce Ride says. "It offended her that the ball wouldn't go just where she wanted."

By then, of course, she had discovered science. The great thing about science is that, subject to the constraints of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, you can make an electron go where you want it to. One of the most important influences on her life was a former UCLA professor named Elizabeth Mommaerts, who came to Westlake in Sally's junior year to teach physiology. It was not physiology that excited Ride, but the scientific method itself, as exemplified by Mommaerts. "She was obviously intelligent, clear thinking and extremely logical," Ride says -- the three highest encomiums she can bestow. "I had never seen logic personified before." The two remained friends until Mommaerts's suicide in 1972. "She's the one person in the world I wanted most to call [after being selected as an astronaut] -- even more than my parents," Ride says. Mommaerts had been interested in space, and Ride considered studying astronomy in college. Fred A. Hargadon, who was dean of admissions at Swarthmore College when Ride applied there in 1967 (he later moved to Stanford, where he oversaw Ride's admission to that university, too), recalls interviewing her in Los Angeles. "We were sitting outside at dusk and Sally was explaining the constellations to me. I had no idea whether she knew what she was talking about, but I was struck by how bright she was." Ride was admitted to Swarthmore, stayed three semesters and then, homesick for California, she transferred to Stanford.

It was at Stanford that she discovered Shakespeare, and, after graduating with her double major in English and physics, she briefly considered continuing her English studies in graduate school. But she chose astrophysics instead. Her graduate work was in X-ray astronomy and free-electron lasers, and she eventually narrowed her interest to the study of the theoretical behavior of free electrons in a magnetic field -- a phenomenon she investigated almost entirely in the abstract, as sets of equations. By a considerable leap of imagination, that work could be construed as relevant to a long-range NASA project of studying ways to transmit power from orbiting space stations to earth. But joining NASA was no more logical a career move for a budding young theoretical physicist than, say, joining an ashram. "I don't know why I wanted to do it," she says. She adds that she doesn't consider herself a particularly "goal oriented" person, a notion Hargadon endorses: "She has always left a little room in her life for things to happen," he says.

That flexibility may have been what NASA liked about her; the space agency had had problems in the past with scientist-astronauts who became lonesome for their specialties and dropped out. By the time Ride applied, NASA was looking for people who met the somewhat contradictory standards of excelling in their fields and yet being willing to give them up. The actual criteria by which 8,000 applicants were narrowed down to 35 remains a mystery, although Ride's husband, Hawley, claims to have found one significant key: when asked by the NASA psychiatrist whether they have ever had amnesia, all the successful applicants apparently answered: "I don't know, I can't remember."

Ride was assigned to work on the team designing the shuttle's remote manipulator arm, an engineering job relatively removed from her training as a physicist. "I spent two years on it, and nothing else," she recalls. "As far as I knew there was nothing else; what you did was launch an arm." After a while it became clear that Ride was destined to do more than just arm work at NASA. The first signal came with the second shuttle mission, where she was tagged for the high-visibility job of capcom -- the capsule communicator who relays the flight director's instructions to the astronauts. Future crews are often drawn from the ranks of the capcoms, and after she served as the voice of Houston again on the third mission, no one was surprised when space-center director of flight operations George W. S. Abbey announced the makeup of the crew for the flight officially designated STS-7 and Ride was listed as a mission specialist.

Ride's other distinction among the astronaut corps is that she and Hawley were the first astronauts to marry. Only the immediate families were present. The bride wore Levi's and a rugby shirt. Hawley is a lanky, red-haired, outgoing astronomerastronaut, who has good-naturedly accepted being eclipsed by his wife. Ride has said she doesn't plan to have children, which seems to have less to do with the vicissitudes of an astronaut's life than with her well-founded suspicion that children are even harder to control than tennis balls. The first time Sally baby-sat, her father recalls, her charges refused to eat the sandwiches she prepared because she put the peanut butter and the jelly on in the wrong order. She threw the sandwiches out, made another batch, and nevr babysat again.

Well, if NASA had wanted to put a mother in orbit, there were plenty to choose from, even among the astronaut corps; but it wanted Sally Ride, no surprise to those who know her. She has taken her own particular path to the cockpit of the space shuttle, as she has all through her life. When the mighty engines blast her into the Florida sky, all she will be doing is what she's always done, which is leaving the rest of us behind.

Sally Ride: Ready for Liftoff | U.S.