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Astronauts, Inspirational women

Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Discusses Being An Astronaut With Gloria Steinem

5 February, 2016

A stunning new animated video highlights Sally Ride‘s interview with icon Gloria Steinem in 1983, mere months after Sally became the first American Woman in Space. Her flight invigorated the imagination of thousands of young girls, showing them that it was possible to be an astronaut, or in Sally Ride’s own words and one of my favourite quotes, “If you can’t see, you can’t be.”

But although NASA were looking to the future, some were still lagging behind. Prior to her flight, rather than focusing on her technical acumen and performance, the press asked Sally whether she cried when there were malfunctions in the shuttle simulator, about the bathroom facilities or what kind of make up she was bringing up with her.

“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight, I wish that two of us had gone up together. I think it would’ve been a lot easier” – Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space

A recording of the interview was found by PBS Digital Studios in the archives of Smith College, who transformed the interview into an animated video (above) for its “Blank on Blank” series, posted this week.

“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight,” Ride says in the video “I think it would have been a lot easier.” She also overcame early education barriers, “I took all the science classes that I could in junior high school and into high school.”

“I went to a girls’ school that really didn’t have a strong science programme at all when I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls, with a good tennis team and a good English teacher. Essentially no math[s] past eleventh grade, no physics and no chemistry.”

NASA has come a long way since Sally Ride’s flight in 1983, with four female astronauts chosen out of the eight candidates in the recent NASA Astronaut Class. Their selection in 2013 means that women now represent 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps, thirty years after the flight of America’s first woman in space.

Although a greater number of women now than ever have the opportunity to become an astronaut and fly, implicit (and explicit) gender bias still remains, notably seen in the questions asked of the crew pre-flight. Six accomplished Russian women underwent an 8-day analogue mission to the Moon last year. Prior to their mission they were asked by the press how they would cope without men, shampoo or makeup for the next week.

This is similar to the line of questioning faced by cosmonaut Yelena Serova, Russia’s 4th female cosmonaut and the female cosmonaut on the International Space Station (ISS). Yelena, an engineer with significant experience, was asked prior to her mission in 2014 how she would style her hair in the microgravity conditions on the ISS and how she would continue to bond with her daughter during her 6-month mission. Remarks about Yelena’s mission by the the editor of Russian magazine Space News including, “We are doing this flight for Russia’s image. She will manage it, but the next woman won’t fly out soon,” do little to inspire hope in the numbers of Russian women in space increasing in the near future.

However, by being honest about these viewpoints, both historical and recent, and exposing the gender bias that still remains globally, there is hope for change.

Watch the interview above or read it here:

Sally Ride (SR): I wish that there had been another woman on my flight, I wish that two of us had gone up together.

Gloria Steinem (GS): It’s tough to be the first but you’ve done it with incredible grace. You also have the only job in the world that everybody understands.

SR: [Laughs] My father I think was so grateful when I became an astronaut because he couldn’t understand astrophysicist. He couldn’t relate to that at all. But astronaut was something that he felt he could [relate to].

GS: And you could see people all over the world connecting with what you were doing.

SR: Roughly half of the people in the world would love to be astronauts, would give anything to trade places with you. The other half just can’t understand why in the world you would do anything that stupid.

GS: If you don’t have 20:20 vision can you become an astronaut candidate or is it disabling?

SR: I think it used to be. Now as long as it’s correctable to 20:20 it’s ok. So you’d probably qualify!

SR: I didn’t have any dreams of being an astronaut at all. And I don’t understand that, because as soon as the opportunity was open to me, I jumped at it. I instantly realised that it was what I really wanted to do. I took all the science classes that I could in junior high school and into high school. I went to a girls’ school that really didn’t have a strong science programme at all when I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls, with a good tennis team and a good English teacher. Essentially no math[s] past eleventh grade, no physics and no chemistry.

GS: I’m curious about the reception that you got inside NASA. What kind of thing happened to you?

SR: Really, the only bad moments in our training happened with the press. The press was an added pressure on the flight for me and whereas NASA appeared to be very enlightened about flying astronaut, the press didn’t appear to be. The things that they were concerned with, were not the same things that I was concerned with.

GS: For instance the bathroom facilities. How often did you get asked that?

SR: Just about every interview I got asked that. Everybody wanted to know what kind of make up I was taking up. They didn’t care about how well prepared I was to operate the arm, or deploy communications satellites.

GS: Did NASA try to prepare you for the press or pressure?

SR: Unfortunately no they don’t. In my case they took a graduate student in physics, who spent her life in the basement of a physics department with oscilloscopes and suddenly put me in front of the press.

GS: What do you suppose are the dumbest kinds of questions that you’ve been asked to date?

SR: Without a doubt, I think the worst question I have got was whether I cried when we got malfunctions in the simulator.

GS: That surpassed the one about whether you were going to wear a bra or not. Did somebody really ask you that?

SR: No, the press I think decided that was a good question for someone to have asked me and for me to have answered. But I never got asked that.

GS: But they made you up a good response. Something about in a state of weightlessness it doesn’t matter.

SR: Yeah I was never asked that question.

GS: What about your feelings during the launch? Was there any time that the enormity of what was going on came over you?

SR: The moment of the launch, when the engines actually ignited and the solid rockets, that everyone on the crew was for a few seconds just overcome with what was about to happen to us. But a year of training is a long time, a year of sitting in simulators and being told exactly what’s going to happen, and you hear the sounds and feel the vibrations. It prepares you very well and it worked. We were able to overcome being overcome and do the things we were supposed to do.

GS: Just watching there at the launch, there were people with tears streaming down their faces. People I never would’ve expected and I guess they were all very moved by the human audacity of it.

SR: I think that when you see the long trail of flame and to imagine that there are really people inside that. That’s really something. Inside of course you don’t see the long trail of flame, and what you feel is more of an exhilaration.

GS: Well there are lots of people who are looking up there and feeling proud. Not just of you but of people on the ground.

SR: Thank you.

GS: What do you think it might be like in 2001 in fact? What’s possible for us?

SR: Well 2001 is a long ways in the future to speculate on. But probably the next step after the space shuttle is a space station. I would forsee a station as not just something that’s orbiting the Earth and used for experimentation but would also be used as a launching platform back to the Moon or to Mars. I’m sure that both of those are inevitable. We’ll go back to the Moon and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we go to Mars.

GS: Do you have any speculation about how long it might be before there are such a thing as ‘peopled’ space colonies?

SR: I’d guess that by the year 2000 there will be. I’d think that we’ll have a space station up by the end of this decade.

GS: On which it’ll be possible to live for long periods of time?

SR: Yes